Mudslide Fears Linger After Devastating Fire

By Vanessa Serna
Vanessa Serna
Vanessa Serna
July 19, 2021 Updated: July 20, 2021

Nearly eight months after the Bond Fire in Orange County, Calif., residents say they fear deadly mudslides are on the horizon, despite the state-wide drought.

The Bond Fire, which erupted in Silverado Canyon Dec. 2, 2020, burnt away vegetation that previously played a crucial part in capturing and storing rainfall. Without it, rain can fall into the canyon without obstruction, creating a mudslide hazard.

Catastrophic mudslides aren’t unprecedented in Southern California.

In January 2018, 23 people died after debris flows as high as 15 feet moved through Montecito, Calif. at speeds of up to 20 miles per hour. Two of the bodies were never found. The community was previously affected by the Thomas Fire, which burned 281,893 acres earlier that month.

Destruction struck Laguna Beach on in February 1998, when landslides along Laguna Canyon Road killed two people.

Williams Canyon resident Susan Iwamoto said that if proper precautions aren’t taken now, her neighborhood could be next.

“Do we want to be like Montecito where you still can’t find bodies that are buried under mud and debris?” Iwamoto told The Epoch Times. “Here we are just waiting for the next rain… if we have an El Nino, I don’t even know what to tell you.”

A Destructive Blaze

The Bond Fire erupted in Silverado Canyon about 10 p.m. Dec. 2, 2020, when many residents were sleeping.

Iwamoto and her husband were stationed on a Williams Canyon fire watch shift in their neighborhood at the time, when they heard chaos on the radio about the wind-driven fire, which began in Silverado Canyon and was traveling about 70 miles per hour.

“Immediately my husband went to wake up our neighbors,” Iwamoto told The Epoch Times. “That’s how we saved everybody [by] knocking on doors.”

Iwamoto recalled her husband waking the neighborhood and saying they had about 10 minutes before the fire reached Williams Canyon.

“We drove out in the fire with the flames coming across our golf carts,” she said. “All I can tell you is we got through that and thought that was the worst of it. No, every time it sprinkled, we were terrorized.”

The Bond Fire was contained last Dec. 10 after burning 6,681 acres, destroying 32 structures, and damaging 21 others.

Smoke Clears Way for New Danger

The fear of the fire no longer lingers, but residents said they carry with them the fear of a deadly mudslide every time it rains. They got their first scare Dec. 26, when a quarter-inch of rain fell throughout a three-day period.

Another rainfall came March 10, when Iwamoto said mudslide debris was following along four-feet of water.

“Nobody could get in and out of Williams,” she said.

Before the March rainfall, Iwamoto decided to stay home, rather than seeking shelter elsewhere, to ensure her neighbors could escape if necessary.

“Our lives were at risk, and I can’t even tell you how terrifying it was,” Iwamoto said. “I kept telling my husband I did not want to die in a mudslide. But we literally had to choose, do you stay and preserve the property and be a support to help neighbors get through the mudslide?”

Iwamoto said the March 10 rainfall caused mudslides that pushed vehicles down the road and into the creek, where some remained until recently.

A report released by Watershed Emergency Response Team Evaluation (WERT) on Jan. 8 highlighted the areas affected by the Bond Fire. It said residents should be ready for debris flows for the next two to five years, and expect flood dangers.

“The level of risk associated with the Bond Fire means that emergency planning, along with a clear understanding of the likely hazards, is critical if deaths, injuries, or property damage are to be avoided or minimized during future rain events,” the report said.

With post-fire concerns, WERT recommended that early warning systems through the Orange County AlertOC system be made available to those located in flood-prone areas.

Other recommendations included monitoring and maintaining road and storm drainage and the utilization of temporary flood control and structure protection.

However, despite the recommendations included in the report, the County of Orange has failed to provide support to Williams Canyon, Iwamoto said.

When the mudslides arrived in March, the county brought in sandbags, but each resident was limited to how many they could receive, leaving homeowners to go and buy enough to protect their properties, she said.

Residents were left piloting tractors and bulldozers as they attempted to take matters into their own hands, Iwamoto added.

“We had to rescue ourselves…we are our own emergency response on our property and on our road,” she said.

Iwamoto said she has attempted to request more assistance, but has not received a response from the board of supervisors.

A spokesperson for Supervisor Don Wagner’s office said Williams Canyon is a private road that is not county maintained, but that the office helps wherever possible. 

In Dec. 2020, prior to the first rainfall after the Bond Fire, Wagner distributed sandbags to canyon residents with the assistance of OC Public Works.  A few weeks later on Jan. 2021, Wagner pulled money from his office budget to purchase over 500 wheat bales and rebar to protect homes from mudslides, his spokesperson said.

Vanessa Serna
Vanessa Serna