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Moderate rainstorm 'just the beginning' of mudslide worries, county official says

October 14, 2009 | 12:57 pm

L.A. County firefighter Steve Clemmens stood under the awning of a doughnut shop in La Crescenta early this morning, staring out into the dark as rain poured down. The wet pavement shimmered as traffic signals changed and large trucks and police cruisers rumbled past.

Although residents and officials were worried overnight about possible mudslides, as sunrise — and the end of Clemmens' all-night shift — neared, the rain and its accompanying concerns seemed to subside.

Clemmens lauded the efforts of officials who helped notify residents in high-risk areas, cleaned out debris basins and delivered thousands of feet of concrete beams, known as K-rails, and sandbags to threatened neighborhoods.

"It looks like they knew what they were doing," said Clemmens, who has been with the county fire department for 23 years. He noticed how clear the water was that flowed down the edge of Rosemont Avenue. "It doesn't mean somebody doesn't have six inches of mud in their backyard," he said. "It just means it's not in the street."

It helped that the rainfall was steady and not particularly heavy, said Gary Boze, a spokesman for the L.A. County Public Works Department.

"I think where we got a break was it didn't come down in the amount or duration that could have caused much more possibility of mud flows and debris flows," Boze said.

Preparing for winter rains is an annual project, he said, but the Station fire that burned in Angeles National Forest in August and September made it more complex. The department contacted and helped prepare nearly 350 property owners in recent weeks, notifying them of the high potential for mudslides, he said.

But just because no mudslides occurred this time around doesn't mean the danger has been averted, said Cpt. Mark Savage, a public information officer for the L.A. County Fire Department.

"Is this a one-time situation? No," said Savage. "This is going to be, most likely, throughout the wintertime, any time there is a significant storm prediction or storm coming in."

Flooding and debris flows can occur soon after fires, but officials noted it took three years after the Mills fire of 1975 before the area experienced mudslides.

"This is going to be an ongoing issue for all the people living in the burn area," Savage said. "Until there is significant [plant] growth, which might take over a year or two or three years, this could be an issue."

The L.A. County Public Works Department is estimating that many of the K-rails and other diversion materials positioned in foothill communities such as La Crescenta, La Cañada Flintridge and Glendale will stay in place for three to five years, Boze said.

Boze said his department has more work to do placing K-rails in Angeles National Forest and along roads such as Big Tujunga Canyon and Angeles Crest Highway.

"This rainstorm that is coming through now, this is a good warning," he said. "It's definitely not over yet. This is just the beginning."

-- Baxter Holmes in La Cañada Flintridge

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