"There Will Be Mud": Post-Wildfire Mud and Debris Flow Emergencies Challenge Firefighters

Larry Collins reports on the hazards faced by Southern California firefighters when floods and mud and debris flows follow wildfires.


Larry Collins reports on the hazards faced by Southern California firefighters when floods and mud and debris flows follow wildfires. Four years after deadly fire storms swept across Southern California and burned thousands of homes, it happened again. In October and November 2007, an unprecedented...


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Larry Collins reports on the hazards faced by Southern California firefighters when floods and mud and debris flows follow wildfires.

Four years after deadly fire storms swept across Southern California and burned thousands of homes, it happened again. In October and November 2007, an unprecedented series of wildfires struck the entire southern half of California, and once again thousands of homes were either in flames or threatened by them, with firefighters experiencing burnovers that left some severely burned and many others with close calls.

And now it's time for the floods and mud and debris flows that inevitably follow the fires. The mountains of Southern California are among the most prolific producers of mud and debris flows anywhere. The reasons include the materials of which the mountains are made, the steepness of their slopes, the seismic processes that constantly push them skyward and the cycle of wildfires followed by heavy storms.

In December 1993, after the deadly "Old Topanga Fire" incinerated tens of thousands of acres and hundreds of homes in Malibu, Los Angeles County firefighters responded to a series of mud and debris flows, including one that trapped two people in a Jeep Cherokee at Big Rock and the Pacific Coast Highway. To the south, firefighters from the Orange County Fire Authority were confronted by a major mud and debris flow in Laguna Canyon.

Naturally, it's not always possible to position rescuers in every place that a mud and debris flow might occur. This is especially true in the more remote mountain areas. In February 1994 (following the "Kinneloa Fire," which denuded thousands of acres of steep mountainside above the cities of Altadena and Sierra Madre in Los Angeles County, a week before the "Old Topanga Fire"), a deadly mud and debris flow swept down Bailey Canyon. It was sunny in the canyon and the lowlands that morning, but a large thunder cell was dumping rain on the upper slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains. A 20-foot-high wall of mud, trees, boulders and other debris surprised many hikers, who barely escaped with their lives by climbing hillsides after they heard (and felt) the rumble of the approaching flow.

A father and his young son hiking in Bailey Canyon were unable to escape and tragically were swept away. Days later, Los Angeles County Public Works personnel experienced a close call when a secondary mud and debris flow struck while they searched for the father and son in the debris basin below the canyon. A TV news crew filmed the massive roiling wall of mud and debris scouring the canyon, carrying telephone poles and large trees. It was a graphic demonstration of the lethality of mud and debris flows.

After the 2003 Southern California fire storms, 15 people died on Christmas when huge mud and debris flows struck Waterman Canyon, a secluded and narrow crevice in the San Bernardino Mountains that was a focal point of the "Old Fire" (which, after it combined with the "Grand Prix Fire" in Los Angeles County, burned more than 150,000 acres and more than 1,000 homes and buildings, leaving a 32-mile swath of denuded slopes).

The family of the caretaker of a Greek Orthodox church camp was celebrating Christmas as a light rain fell through the morning, saturating the soil. By afternoon, the rain became an intense downpour. Suddenly a 14-foot-high wall of mud, boulders and 40-foot-tall trees crashed through the camp. Entire buildings full of people were ripped from the slopes and washed away. Some people climbed to higher ground, but others were washed away or stranded. One man, ripped from his children, was pinned by boulders and trees; hours later, firefighters freed him using chain saws and other tools. Suffering from hypothermia and other injuries, the man survived, but his children were never seen alive again. It took more than a week for firefighters and search and rescue teams to find all 13 victims.

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