Rain Storms in Southern California Lead to Worries in Wildfire Burn Areas, Some Evacuations Ordered in Riverside County

Though no mandatory evacuations were put in place in Los Angeles County, officials in the Los Angeles area also remained cautious as the ingredients for potentially dangerous conditions were in place.

by Robert Gundran and Jonah Valdez, San Bernardino County Sun, Calif. / November 29, 2018
Crews work to clear debris from the closed 101 freeway at Olive Mill Road in Montecito, Calif., on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. TNS

(TNS) - As rain begins to fall in Southern California from the latest storm, towns and counties prepared for the imminent problems it could cause, especially in areas previously affected by wildfires.

Amid worries of mudslides and debris flow, parts of Riverside County where the Holy fire had burned in August were placed under mandatory evacuation Wednesday afternoon. The rain also prompted Orange County officials to issue voluntary evacuations for communities that may receive mud and debris flowing from Holy fire burn areas.

Though no mandatory evacuations were put in place in Los Angeles County, officials in the Los Angeles area also remained cautious as the ingredients for potentially dangerous conditions were in place.

Los Angeles County

The Woolsey fire, which burned through more than 96,000 acres in Los Angeles and Venutra Counties, has consumed vegetation from many hillside communities in Los Angeles County, leaving many homes and roads vulnerable to possible mudslides, rock slides, and debris flows.

One to two inches of rain is expected to fall in the Woolsey fire burn areas throughout Wednesday night and Thursday, said Eric Boldt, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service.

Issues are expected to come from the rain, Boldt said, but he expects them to be minor, such as small mudslides and rocks coming off canyon walls, possibly leading to road closures.

Emily Montanez, a spokeswoman for the L.A. County Office of Emergency Management, said officials were not fretting quite yet over the predicted rains. She said officials were in a “wait-and-see” mode over the weather.

Officials with Los Angeles County’s Department of Public Works have been inspecting flood infrastructure in burn areas, such as storm drains and culverts, making sure they are clear and able to handle the coming storm, said Steve Frasher, public information officer for the department.

Frasher said officials have also been working with homeowners to set up sandbags and small plywood walls to divert some water flow and small mudslides away from homes and along driveways and into the road.

Though it is possible, Frasher said there are no large mudslides expected for the burn areas.

“It’s certainly not an amount that would trigger a dire warning. It’s not a Montecito or La Tuna Canyon scenario that we had last year. However we’re always mindful that there’s that potential out of any rain event,” he said.

Malibu Mayor Rick Mullen said residents in his city remain cautious as their once grassy and bushy hillsides are now left bare and charred.

“We’re kinda in unknown territory ’cause the scale of loss of vegetation is pretty unprecedented,” Mullen said. “People have been sandbagging their properties left and right and are being cautious and preemptive.”

Most problems in burn areas come from heavy downpours that remain in one area for a long period of time, Boldt said. Yet with wind gusts blasting at about 40 to 50 miles per hour along the mountain areas, the storm is expected to blow through the area rather quickly. Downpours are expected to last only 15 to 20 minutes at a time, with the heaviest rains coming between after midnight and through 6 a.m. Thursday, he said.

Still, county officials warned that residents within burn areas should prepare their families and animals for possible evacuation, having their cars full of gas, backed into driveways and with several evacuation routes in mind.

Riverside County

 With the National Weather Service in San Diego forecasting rainfall in the region through Friday of around one inch near the coast to two to four inches in the mountains, officials in Riverside and Orange counties were on high alert for flooding and potential mud and debris flows in the burn areas of this summer’s Holy fire, which burned some 23,000 acres in and near the Cleveland National Forest.

Mandatory evacuations were put in place Wednesday afternoon for some areas burned by the fire as the storm is forecasted to bring periods of heavy rain into the area.

The evacuation order issued around 3 p.m. affected 1,017 homes and approximately 3,500 residents. Fire officials went door-to-door to notify residents and give evacuation information, said Capt. Fernando Herrera, a public information officer with Cal Fire/Riverside County.

“Because of an approaching storm, a mandatory evacuation order has been issued, effective at 3 p.m. on Nov. 28,” Herrera said in a statement. “Evacuations are mandatory for the Amorose, Alberhill, Glen Ivy A, Glen Eden, Grace, Horsethief A, Laguna A, Matri, McVicker A, Rice and Withrow A zones. People in these zones MUST GO NOW.”

The communities are located south of Corona, in areas around Temescal Valley.

The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department’s Lake Elsinore Station listed storm-related road closures on its Facebook page.

Jannlee Watson, a community leader in Temescal Valley, said the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department was going door-to-door in the communities of Horsethief A and Glen Eden.

She said she was glad to see law enforcement let people know that it wasn’t safe to stay in their homes.

“I know some people in Glen Eden evacuated yesterday when it was voluntary,” Watson said. “People don’t see the danger, and they aren’t as prone to leave. It’s not like a fire where you can see it coming.”

Yet despite the mandatory orders, most houses in the Horsethief A neighborhood on Wednesday night had lights on and cars parked in the driveway.

“People don’t see the danger, and they aren’t as prone to leave. It’s not like a fire where you can see it coming,” Watson said.

Kevin O’Brien, a resident of Horsethief A, said he didn’t leave his house during the Holy fire, and wouldn’t leave before or during a flash flood.

“My neighbor’s backyard was on fire, but we stayed put,” O’Brien said. “I sat on the roof and hosed down the house.”

“I’m not worried about the flood. If the mud comes down the street, I feel fine in my house,” he added.

O’Brien said he feels worried for people further down the Santa Ana Mountains, as the flood carries debris and mud down the streets like a river.

Less than a dozen people were at the evacuation center early Wednesday evening at Temescal Canyon High School.

Food, water, cots and blankets were available for anyone who checked in at the school’s gym.

A hotline for evacuees was set up at 951-940-6985, and a care and reception center is open at Temescal Canyon High School, located at 28755 El Toro Road, Lake Elsinore.

“Evacuees’ large and small animals will be accepted at the care and reception center and at the San Jacinto Animal Campus, 581 S. Grand Ave., San Jacinto,” Herrera said.

On Tuesday, a voluntary evacuation order was put in place before it was upgraded Wednesday.

This map shows the areas evacuated in Riverside County.

“The voluntary evacuation order issued yesterday was changed to mandatory because projected rainfall increased, elevating the possibility of dangerous debris flows,” according to a statement from Cal Fire/Riverside County. “Areas that burned are at-risk of debris flows, which are deadly, fast-moving landslides.

The evacuation orders also forced the closure of several Lake Elsinore area schools: Rice Canyon Elementary, Withrow Elementary, Luiseño School, and Terra Cotta Middle School. Nicole Dailey, an assistant to the city manager in Lake Elsinore, said district officials would give an update on the closures on Thursday.

“There is also a risk of flooding, mud flows, rockfalls and other landslides during and immediately after,” Cal Fire Riverside said. “Debris flows can happen with little to no warning. If your home is in an at-risk area, it is critical that you understand the seriousness of the situation and are always prepared.”

Orange County

There are very few homes in Orange County that sit within the Holy fire’s burn area. However, rains are expected to drive some mud and debris from the burn areas, down into some communities within the county, said Capt. Tony Bommarito with the Orange County Fire Authority.

On Tuesday night, voluntary evacuations were issued for homes located within Trabuco Creek, Rose Canyon and the Mystic Oaks and El Cariso areas, which are off the Ortega Highway.

Those areas are under a flash flood watch, but depending on what the National Weather Service says as they monitor the rains, it may be upgraded to a flash flood warning, which would lead to mandatory evacuations, Bommarito said.

“[NWS] is saying there’s a high possibility that the criteria will be met for a flash flood warning,” he said.

The heaviest downpours in the area are expected on Thursday between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., Bommarito said.

Evacuation routes can quickly become impassable due to mud, debris or flooding, county officials warned in a statement. Residents with large animals were also told to follow their personal plans to move their animals before the rainfall arrives.

San Bernardino County

Eric Sherwin, spokesman for the San Bernardino County Fire Department, said there were no mandatory or voluntary evacuations in place throughout the county, but the fire department would be on notice and let any residents know if danger is imminent.

“Officers and emergency services are tracking the storm,” Sherwin said. “We’re keeping an eye on it and if any threats emerge, we’ll let the people know.”

The county alerts residents of danger through the Telephone Emergency Notification System (TENS). It alerts residents through recorded messages on landlines and text messages on cellphones. San Bernardino County keeps a database of all landlines, but those who want to get notified on their cellphone need to sign up for the service.

San Bernardino County residents can sign up for TENS alerts by calling 211 or 888-435-7565.

Sherwin also noted that the fire department was aware of snow possibly dropping to lower elevations.

“All of our mountain equipment is prepared to respond to those situation,” he said.

Staff writer Josh Cain contributed to this story.


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