It was bound to happen. The often-joked-about, yet creepily consistent fabled four seasons of Southern California (Fire, Flood, Earthquake and Drought) are proving true once again. Granted, this week’s impressive Pacific rainstorm activity is the earliest and strongest of the past four decades for this time of year, according to the weather wizards on the radio.
Even so, the withering heat waves and devastating wildfires of late summer were destined to be followed by torrents of rain. And with the rain comes the threat of dangerous runoff from the steep, newly burned mountains looming above our communities.
On several occasions now, I’ve heard experienced fire professionals say with unusual candor and astonishment that, due to the abnormal amounts of tinder dry fuel available, combined with the lack of wind to move the flames forward, the Station fire burned with extraordinarily intense and prolonged heat. Not only was every bit of above ground foliage and vegetation charred to ashen powder, but even many of the roots below ground burned as well.
Surface foliage prevents topsoil from eroding away and holds back other debris – rocks, branches, and the like – from washing downhill. It’s the root systems below the surface that prevent soil and rocks from sliding when heavy rains percolate through the ground. The situation is so bad that Angeles Crest Highway has remained closed since the fires because, even with no rain at all, there have already been many hazardous slides in our mountains.
All week long, the media has breathlessly reported the progress of city workers, citizen volunteers and homeowners using thousands of sandbags to build protective walls against the coming runoff. With luck, these will help deflect some of the inevitable rivers of water and debris. Hundreds of heavy cement barriers, or “K-rails” as we’re repeatedly told they’re called, have also been placed in strategic locations all along the foothills. (In this case, “strategic” means just about any north/south avenue leading down from the hillside.)
I can’t help but be impressed by the amazing effort and substantial commitment of resources already invested in protecting the homes and property of the Crescenta Valley. It is a Herculean effort against a formidable enemy. The fire trucks and helicopters that were everywhere during the Station fire have been replaced by larger dump trucks, skip loaders and more bulldozers than I’ve ever seen before. There are also convoys of semi trucks pulling flat bed trailers loaded with those heavy K-rail barriers. Every time I see one, it’s headed uphill towards the top of whatever street I happen to be on. As I write this I can hear a large, heavily burdened truck of some sort lumbering up La Crescenta Avenue towards Pine Crest. I would bet a new set of wiper blades that it’s carrying either a bulldozer or more barriers.
I pray these efforts help. But any optimism I might have is tempered by the history of natural disasters in our valley – specifically of fires and floods. After all, given enough water, retardant, fire fighting crews, heavy equipment and aircraft thrown at it, even the worst of fires can be slowed and eventually stopped. On the other hand, entire hillsides of rock, dirt, ash and debris sliding downhill with the weight of a glacier and the speed of an avalanche are unstoppable. I mean, even a K-rail doesn’t stand a chance against a boulder the size of a Hummer.
By the time these words are on your driveway, the worst of this storm will have passed over us. I certainly can’t predict how much or how little damage may be left in its wake. I will say, however, that in spite of my well-publicized and oft-repeated passion for multiple days of cold and stormy weather with copious amounts of rainfall – if the forecasters did get it drastically wrong like they so often do – this is one time I’ll actually be grateful. But I still don’t have to like it.
I’ll see you ’round town.