Orange County Fire Chief Warns of Mudslide Dangers

Orange County Fire Chief Warns of Mudslide Dangers
Emergency personnel search through debris and mudflow in this still photo taken from video provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department after a mudslide in Montecito, Calif., on Jan. 9, 2018. (Courtesy of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department)

The Orange County Fire Authority chief says he’s concerned that upcoming rainfalls will trigger a mudslide in Southern California’s fire-ravaged canyons.

When the Bond Fire began Dec. 2, it tore through 6,686 acres, destroying plants that played a critical role in controlling water flow in rural valleys. During a recent flyover tour of the region, Chief Brian Fennessy noted the steep slopes in the area, which are now devoid of any foliage.

There’s a 60 percent chance of steady rain Dec. 21, with precipitation expected to approach from multiple fronts. If the region receives half an inch of water within a one-hour time span, it could be enough to cause the hills to slide, Fennessy said.

“It’s quite possible the mud and debris flow in those canyons—Silverado, Modjeska, Williams, and all those canyons up there—could be more of a life hazard than that fire was,” Fennessy told The Epoch Times Dec. 22.

“The vegetation is completely gone above those canyon areas, and those areas are so steep that if we hit sustained rain for very long, those hillsides are going to come down into those fairly narrow canyons.”

Mudslides in the region aren’t unprecedented.

On Feb. 26, 1969, heavy rains and ensuing floods resulted in a Silverado Canyon mudslide that killed five people and injured 17 others. It was among the worst natural disasters in Orange County history. Later, in 2005, 16-year-old Caitlin Oto was killed during a Silverado Canyon rock slide.

“There’s a history in Silverado Canyon,” Fennessy said. “Bad things happen when it rains hard. That’s when it’s not even burnt. Now there is nothing holding that soil back. I am very concerned about what may occur in those canyons.”

Preparing for the Worst

Fennessy recently met with stakeholders to discuss mudslide dangers. The Fire Authority is working with Orange County Public Works, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD), federal forest employees, and others to try to mitigate risk. The county is clearing out culverts and drainage systems, and sandbags are being laid.

“The one thing I’ve learned over all these years is planning,” Fennessy said. “Prepare for the worst, as early as you can.”

The OCSD’s emergency management team works closely with the fire authorities to find ways of preventing a catastrophic mudslide, OCSD spokesman Sgt. Dennis Breckner told The Epoch Times.

Its water emergency response team is dispatched to assess terrain during and after a fire, while another team is established to identify the most dangerous areas.

“When a rain event is in the forecast, all efforts are made to determine those areas that are most vulnerable and then members of the public are warned and in some cases, evacuated prior to the rain event,” Breckner said in an email.

Warning efforts are part of a layered response, he said, and could come from field deputies, AlertOC, social media, or emails to canyon leadership members.

He said police encourage canyon residents to use alternative forms of communication, such as satellite phones and weather radios, and generators in the event of a power outage.

“The safety of the public is our ultimate responsibility,” Breckner said. “While we make every effort to be accurate and timely with our emergency response and notification, as you know the weather can be very unpredictable.  At times, we may warn members of the public and in some cases, evacuate areas, only to find that the rain event was insignificant.”

Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner said he was doing his part to help prepare for mudslide season. He ordered 10,000 sandbags to protect homes from being washed out when the winter rains arrive. He also said the county is working to ensure debris, mud, and rocks are cleared from streambeds to prevent flooding.

Evacuations Possible

Meanwhile, the region’s fire chief is encouraging canyon residents to leave the area if the rains create precarious conditions.

“If you’re seeing slippage, or an unusual amount of water and debris running down—and it will because there’s no vegetation to hold that back—I would seriously consider evacuating,” Fennessy said.

“I tell people this all the time, whether it’s a fire, or flood, or mud flow, don’t wait for us to tell you to evacuate. If you’re feeling uneasy or uncomfortable, then do it.”

Michelle Thompson is an editor and reporter based in Orange County, California. Her award-winning work has appeared in numerous major Canadian daily newspapers, as well as multiple U.S. publications.
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