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K-rail barriers may remain in mudslide-threatened areas for years to come

They are lining the streets in areas affected by the Station fire, a precaution during this week's storm. But the white slabs could stay put for up to five years -- until the risk diminishes.

October 16, 2009|Baxter Holmes

Residents in the foothill communities hit by the Station fire cheered when officials trucked in thousands of white concrete highway barriers and placed them in front of their homes.

The hulking "K-rails" helped channel rainwater and mud away from homes during this week's storm.

But now officials say the barriers could stay on the streets up to five years -- the length of time the risk of mudslides is expected to last in hillside areas of Glendale, La Crescenta, La Canada Flintridge and other locations.

Residents are glad to have the added protection -- but they are not thrilled with the prospect of all those K-rails altering their rustic landscape.

"It's going to be a bother. We'll probably have some kids writing obscenities on the things because they can't resist an open surface," said resident Tom Burrows, 81, who lives on Ocean View Boulevard. "We may even decorate them. I don't know what we'll do."

Burrows worries that the dozens of K-rails lining his street could hurt property values and the aesthetics of the area, which is within walking distance of the Angeles National Forest.

"It's ugly, but it's better ugly than the awful things that can happen in a heavy rain," he said. "I'm a practical person. I won't like it. It's going to be here and I'm going to get sick of it. And it obviously diminishes the values of our homes up here to have a reminder that we have a flood problem -- and an ugly reminder every hour of the day that we have a potential flood problem."

Glendale has placed about 3,000 linear feet of the barriers, and L.A. County has placed 6,000 feet in unincorporated areas.

Even more are coming, said Gary Boze, spokesman for the county Department of Public Works.

Officials say the barriers help channel runoff down streets, reducing potential damage to homes from mudslides and flooding.

The Station fire left hillsides above the homes barren, and sustained rain could trigger slides.

"We're estimating three to five years," Boze said of how long the barriers will remain in place.

Foothill communities have a history of mudslides following fires. The New Year's Eve flood of 1934 came months after the 1933 fire, but the floods of 1978 came three years after the Mills Creek fire because, according to Caltech researchers in a 1978 Times article, subtle soil changes caused by the fire and an unusually hard burst of rain created floods of rare proportions.

Earlier this week, the La Canada Flintridge Public Works Department laid out the K-rails just at the edge of Burrows' lawn. Burrows received a packet of information explaining emergency precautions, but also telling him the rails would stay for approximately three to five years while the vegetation grows back on the hillsides near his home. The cost of removing them and re-installing them would be too great, the packet explained.

Norma Ellis has been selling homes for 45 years, and even with the housing market tanking, the Glendale native has done all right.

But now, she said, the barriers could be her toughest sell yet.

"It's going to be frightening to buyers if they see an area that has K-rails and sandbags all over," she said.

Until last week, Ellis, a Realtor at the Dilbeck Realtors office in La Crescenta, had never heard of K-rails. This week, driving toward her Spanish-style home on Markridge Road, she saw them up close, including at her next-door neighbor's home.

They may not have affected her house, but they've affected her job.

Last week, her employer started adding disclosures to contracts for certain for-sale homes. The warning tells potential buyers that the house they're considering lies in an area with a likelihood of mudslides and floods.

"We just want them to be aware," Ellis said.

The K-rails should help with that.

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baxter.holmes@latimes.com

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