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Slippery odds for a mountain road

After the Station fire, debris flows severely damaged Angeles Crest Highway. Caltrans hopes to reopen an 11-mile stretch of the route in December — but the unpredictable San Gabriel range might have other ideas.

October 13, 2010|By Thomas Curwen, Los Angeles Times

Gustavo Ortega had expected problems, but nothing like this. The overnight storm, a typical February torrent, had rolled through La Cañada Flintridge, and Angeles Crest Highway stood right in its path. The next day, Ortega surveyed the damage.

Less than a mile out, with the rooftops of the city still visible in his rearview mirror, he stopped. The road ahead had nearly disappeared, 24 feet of asphalt reduced to a sliver barely the width of his Expedition. Somewhere in the canyon below lay the rest of the pavement.

Then it dawned on him: The highway had nearly been lost.

An engineering geologist with Caltrans, Ortega is responsible for making sure the roads in Southern California stay securely attached to the ground. It isn't as easy as it seems, and in the San Gabriel Mountains, the Station fire had made the job nearly impossible.

Just past the collapsed stretch, a maintenance crew had scraped a path, heaping mud 4 feet deep into the opposite lane. Ortega started to think about possible structural solutions. In his mind, the clock was already running.

He considered commuters from Palmdale, researchers at Mt. Wilson and the technicians and service crews responsible for maintaining the communications towers and utility lines positioned throughout the mountains. More than 4,000 vehicles a day used this part of the highway last year.

Up ahead at Brown Canyon, the road was barely passable. Guardrails angled down into a water-carved gorge. K-rails and slabs of asphalt teetered on the edge of the broken grade or lay scattered in the canyon below. Crushed drainage pipes poked out of the craggy slope.

Ortega got out and took some pictures.

Caltrans had hoped to open the route, an 11-mile stretch between La Cañada-Flintridge and the Mt. Wilson Road, by summer. Estimates now say December, but given the unpredictable nature of these mountains, there are no guarantees.

Still, Ortega's confidence is undiminished. "I don't see the work on the Angeles Crest Highway as a losing battle," he says.

He is well-suited for the job.


Roads in California have always taken a beating; daily commutes, 18-wheelers and fiery accidents tell only part of the story. The slipping and sliding of the ground deserves its own chapter.

The most troublesome routes, according to Ortega, are among the most scenic: Pacific Coast Highway between the McClure Tunnel in Santa Monica and Point Mugu; State Route 150 from Santa Paula to Ojai; San Gabriel Canyon Road; Ortega Highway in Orange County; and Angeles Crest Highway.

Ortega, 50, knows them quite well. He and his team help manage the state highways and freeways in Los Angeles, Ventura and Orange counties.

Ortega started working for Caltrans in 1988. As a child growing up in Mexico and visiting the hot springs near his family's ranch in Michoacán, he became interested in geology. Before coming to California, he worked for Mexico's state-run oil industry.

Of all the roads in the state, he most admires Interstate 80 over the Donner Pass.

"In my mind, it's a blueprint for what a road is," he says. "You can stand there and see the trail that the native Californians used, the wagon trails that the emigrants used, the railroad tracks, the old highway and the new interstate. It's all there."

After assessing the damage to Angeles Crest, Ortega identified six sites for major reconstruction. In making his recommendations, he considered the possibility that additional debris flows could happen here. He wanted no one to have to redesign this portion of the road again, and it had to be safe no matter what the mountains threw at it.

Those repairs — and work on the storm-damaged roadbed and drainage systems — total $16.5 million. Since then, he's driven this stretch once a week from downtown Los Angeles to check on the progress.

One morning this summer, Ortega stood on the road above Niño Canyon, talking to the foreman. Twenty feet away, a bulldozer teetered over the shoulder and then dropped, blade first, down a slope, pushing a mound of dirt to a pad 60 feet below. The grade seemed almost vertical.

"Just about 45 degrees," Ortega said, making a quick calculation, a useful skill in mountains so precipitous that sometimes it seems that only friction is holding them up.

Right now the slope is too steep to support the road, he explains, but when the work's completed, it will be close to 33 degrees, enough to give two lanes proper purchase on the reinforced mountain.

Why the highway failed is no mystery. In the aftermath of the Station fire, the U.S. Forest Service predicted an "increase in destructive debris flows … racing down channel bottoms in a slurry similar to the consistency of concrete, in masses from a few hundred cubic yards to hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of saturated material, destroying everything…."

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