Sun is coming out in Southern California, but mudslides, floods remain a threat when more rain comes

2018-01-11 | The Orange County Register

Jan. 11--The rains finally came, quick but irate.

After a parched three months, the first storm of the rainy season tore through Southern California this week, flooding streets, causing deadly mudslides in fire-charred areas and slickening roadways.

But, forecasters say, it probably wasn't a harbinger of things to come. More likely, it was a brief tempest in the land of perpetual summer.

The next week and a half, which forecasters can predict with relative certainty, should be dry, sunny and warm.

Beyond that, the environmental arithmetic remains the same: Overgrown wilderness areas are still prone to out-of-control blazes, there's no pressing concern of slipping back into drought, and those in recently fire-devastated areas face the specter of floods and mudslides anytime it rains -- potentially for years to come.

"This storm does not portend anything that might happen in the future," said Matt Moede, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service.

Forecasts unreliable

Southern California will have a strangely uniform weather pattern through the weekend: Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties will each see midweek temperatures in the mid-70s that will gradually rise until hitting the 80s on Saturday, Moede said.

The reason, he added, is that the marine layer -- which normally keeps the coasts cooler than inland areas -- will be minimal.

Rain could return to the Southland at the end of January, Moede said. Maybe.

Long-term weather predictions are notoriously a crapshoot. Two years ago, the strongest El Nino recorded was supposed to pummel Southern California. Instead, nearly nothing. Last year, during a traditionally dry La Nina period, the state was drenched. Forecasters predicted rain several times this season, with nothing to show for it.

"We are still predicting below-average precipitation for the winter," Moede said. "But long-term forecasts are extremely hard. It's such a new science."

But even if Southern California, or the entire state, doesn't get another drop of water, it doesn't mean another drought is on its way.

Thanks to last year's record rainfall, particularly in the north, every major reservoir in the state has above-average levels of water, said Doug Carlson, a spokesman for the California Water Resources Board.

Shasta is at 112 percent of average levels. Folsom, 116 percent. Castaic, in Los Angeles County, is nearly there -- at 98 percent.

The snowpack, Carlson said, is also doing well.

"Because of the backload of water, Carlson said, "falling back into drought is not feasible at the moment."

Fires, on the other hand, remain a menace.

Constant vigilance

On Tuesday morning, U.S. Forest Service firefighters convened in the Descanso area of the Cleveland National Forest. They were waiting, hoping, for rain.

Not to help extinguish a fire -- but so they could start one.

The crew was in Decanso, in San Diego County, to set a controlled burn, meant to use up the fuel that intensifies and spreads wildfires.

"It's safer to burn during the rain," said Olivia Walker, spokeswoman for the Forest Service. "It was our first burn of the season because it had been so dry. Tuesday was the perfect conditions."

In 2017, 1.3 million acres burned throughout the state, with 10,000 structures destroyed, according to Cal Fire, making it one of the worst years on record.

Wildfire season now lasts year-round, Walker said. And storms such as Tuesday's storm -- which hit so hard-and-fast, the soil likely couldn't absorbed most of the water -- provide a reprieve for only a couple of weeks.

"Even though it was a lot of rain by our standards," Walker said, "it wasn't enough by fire standards."

For fire officials, then, vigilance is paramount.

Controlled burns are a crucial part of preventative measures. But officials also enact bans on campfires in areas that are overgrown or haven't burned in awhile, Walker said. They prioritize resources based on threat levels. And firefighters get shifted around the state based on fire risk: if, for example, the Santa Ana winds kick up, expect more firefighters stationed in Southern California.

"We constantly reassess," Walker said.

Still, she added, there's only so much fire crews can do. And with consistently hot and dry weather, another wildfire is always around the corner.

And the effects of fires can last for years.

One-two punch

Wayne Reigelman stood in his carport under his house on Tuesday, listening. Not to the barrage of pitter-patter that signaled the worst of the storm had begun.

He listened, instead, for what was to come:

A rumble.

"I heard it rumble and looked up," said Reigelman, 57, who lives on rural Gold Creek Road in the Angeles National Forest, and "saw it coming down."

"It" was water, soil, silt, debris. A mudslide barreling toward the carport and the couple of adjoining rooms.

"Stay up there!" he yelled to his wife, on her way down the stairs. "Stay up there!"

The couple, and Reigelman's step-daughter, had survived the Creek Fire a month earlier. They woke up in the darkness of Dec. 5, the patriarch threw on jeans and packed up the dogs, and the family fled.

When they returned, the house, built in the 40s or 50s and bought by Reigelman in 2006, was still standing. Amazingly, he said.

His neighbors were not so lucky.

"My house is the only one that survived," Reigelman, a nature-lover, said. "But we lost some things -- family antiques, my wife's baby pictures -- that insurance doesn't cover and couldn't be replaced even if they did."

But a month later, his carport was covered in three-feet of mud. It'll take, by his estimate, a couple of weeks to make the area livable. Months -- and who knows how much money -- to get back to normal.

"I have to dig it out by hand," he said.

The mudslide that buried his carport, though, is only one of several that occurred in burn areas -- fire and rain forming a one-two punch of devastation -- throughout Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

In Montecito, 15 people died. Crews in Burbank and La Tuna Canyon, in L.A. County, worked throughout Wednesday to clear debris off of streets. Several highways, including the 101 freeway between Ventura and Santa Barbara, were closed because of floods or mudslides, according to Caltrans.

Several hundred were evacuated during Tuesday's storm because of potential mudslides.

Those areas -- and others that burned last year, such as Anaheim Hills, where the Canyon Fire 2 burned in October -- will likely have to deal with mudslides for the foreseeable future.

"It could take years before there's no more threat to mudslides in areas that burned," Walker said. "The soil after a fire is like clay, where the water just runs off."

She said the site of the Wilmar Fire, in Petaluma, will likely be mudslide-prone for three-to-four years. Officials in Trabuco Canyon, she added, thought a mudslide would occur at the Canyon Fire burn area -- but were pleasantly mistaken.

"We're lucky with the amount of rain that happened," she said, "We didn't get more mudslides."

So for now, and at least the next week -- as the sun and mid-70s temps return -- Southern Californians can sigh: their eternal summer is back. But, officials say, be warned: mudslides and wildfires still lurk nearby -- they normal parts of the arithmetic.

***Rain totals

Yorba Linda: 1.78 inches

Anaheim Hills: 1.58

Fullerton Airport: 1.06

Cal State San Bernardino: 3.11

Chino Airport: 1.63

Downtown L.A.: 1.49

Pasadena: 2.83