Ventura County Mudslide

Ventura County is located on the Southern California coast between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties. The mountains in the central and northern part of the county channel rain water into two rivers that in turn drain into the Pacific Ocean. During normal rainfall events, this ancient natural...


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Ventura County is located on the Southern California coast between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties. The mountains in the central and northern part of the county channel rain water into two rivers that in turn drain into the Pacific Ocean. During normal rainfall events, this ancient natural drainage system is sufficient to allow the water to flow into the sea in a benign manner.

Beginning in late December 2004 and into January 2005, drought-ridden Southern California was pummeled by a series of storms; the brunt of which was taken by the Ventura County mountains. Between Dec. 26 and Jan. 5, areas of Ventura County received over 24 inches of rain. By the time the three back-to-back storms arrived on Sunday, Jan. 9, the saturated ground was unable to absorb any additional water, the natural drainage was overwhelmed and the inevitable flooding began throughout the county.

Sunday evening, the Ventura County Fire Department began to receive an onslaught of rain-related calls for service throughout the county that was the precursor of what was yet to come. Fire department rescue resources were augmented with additional dispatchers to deal with the increase in call volume. Public service responses for assistance with minor flooding began to back up at the fire communications center. Three swift water rescue teams were among those deployed. These teams ended up performing 23 rescues and two recoveries over five days, including some worthy of meritorious awards.

The Saturation Point

On Monday morning in the northern portion of the county near the seaside community of La Conchita, fire department resources were busy trying to evacuate 200 people who were stranded in their cars between two mudslides on Highway 101, the major north-south corridor running through the county. Provisions were being made to transport the people to the local fire station where they could stay out of the rain until the highway was cleared by heavy equipment.

It was just after 1 o’clock in the afternoon when emergency responders witnessed the sudden and unexpected disaster that was taking place in the community just south of their location. La Conchita is an enclave known for its proximity to the beach, affordable housing and bohemian atmosphere where people come to enjoy life away from the crowded nearby cities. Because of the storm-related problems, children stayed home from school and many others were home who normally would be away during the day. Witnesses described hearing a horrific sound that came with no warning, similar to a jet engine, created by the mudslide moving down into the community of La Conchita, along with the sound of homes being crushed in the path of the 30- foot wall of mud and debris.

The Ventura County Fire Department personnel who arrived on-scene within minutes described an incredibly chaotic sight, rarely witnessed by many veteran firefighters. Victims were being pulled from the rubble by civilians, panicked people were running from the scene limping and bleeding, others were digging aimlessly where their houses stood just moments before. Crushed homes had been torn from their foundations and were spread amid the ruins; other structures were demolished and buried under 25 to 30 feet of mud.

Mutilated cars and trucks were leaking gasoline and were strewn over a large area, downed power lines were entangled in the rubble and the smell of natural gas permeated the air. Law enforcement officers were trying to evacuate citizens to safe areas and were met with resistance. In addition, above the scene, more mud was poised to slide into the area where rescuers were focused on retrieving victims who were still alive in the rubble. And so began the rescue operation that lasted four days and eventually involved over 800 incident personnel.

Gaining Control

La Conchita lies in a remote area of Ventura County, which meant resources had to travel significant distances through heavy rains to arrive at the scene. A Ventura County Fire Department battalion chief who witnessed the slide arrived first on-scene and struggled to develop his rescue plan with minimum resources. Only one hour earlier, Highway 101 was closed due to mudslides that had completely sealed off the area. Fortunately, just before the large slide, the road was cleared, allowing access for responders. However, the mud that remained on Highway 101 caused a responding engine and ambulance to slide off the roadway, resulting in neither one making it to the incident.

Initial fire department resources were assigned to triage victims and to determine the scope of the incident. A Ventura County Fire Department captain was assigned as the medical group supervisor and surveyed the scene in order to develop a medical plan, which included the setting up of triage, treatment and transportation areas as well as the designation of a morgue. The initial resources included Ventura County Sheriff Search and Rescue personnel, who helped locate victims and began assisting with the rescue effort.

As the incident unfolded, an operations section chief, rescue group supervisor and division group supervisors were assigned as the incident command structure began to build. Shortly after, Ventura County Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) specialists arrived and began formulating the complex plan that laid out the succeeding days’ efforts.

The Plan

A plan was formulated that allowed surface searches to continue by first responders followed by a combination of heavy and medium US&R teams making their way into what remained of the structures that were visible from the surface. Hand crews from Ventura County and surrounding agencies supported these efforts. After the initial surface rescues were made and the victims were transported to hospitals, the rescue efforts focused on the victims who were alive in the remains of the structures. Firefighters picked and tunneled through the rubble toward voices that responded to the hailing. Even the most experienced US&R members found these rescues harrowing and difficult to execute due to the instability and inaccessibility of the voids that contained victims. Any additional movement of the mud would potentially entomb the rescuers along with the civilians. Six survivors were extricated in the first few hours through these incredible efforts. The remaining trapped victims would not survive the La Conchita landslide.

The next phase involved the use of tow vehicles to remove the variety of vehicles that were crushed along with the structures. Approximately 45 cars, trucks, boats, trailers and campers had to be removed for the heavy equipment to access the slide area. The use of excavators and dump trucks followed this effort from every available vantage point while being directed by US&R teams. Their objective was to carefully remove the soil to unearth the homes where victims might still be found alive in the voids. Spotters were in place to monitor the hillside to warn the rescuers in the event of another slide.

The incident was eventually divided into four geographical divisions where nine excavators and four front-end loaders carefully removed mud and debris from the perimeter inward in search of void spaces. As voids were found, the digging stopped while search dogs, listening devices and search cameras were utilized in an attempt to locate victims. This methodical process continued until early Thursday morning, Jan. 13, when cracks began to appear in the soil. Shortly afterward, the county geologist, along with the incident command team, determined that any further digging would compromise the stability of the soil and cause a secondary slide that could potentially engulf the rescuers. Now, with all of the factors considered including the results of an extensive investigation that indicated that all victims had been accounted for, the active search and rescue phase was halted.

The Aftermath

The La Conchita incident injured an unconfirmed number of people, sent eight to local hospitals, claimed 10 lives, destroyed 10 homes and left 13 damaged, and literally wiped away a large portion (3.5 acres) of this picturesque seaside community. Sixteen public agencies and numerous private contractors assisted in rescue, recovery and cleanup operations. An estimated 2,700 tons of debris and mud per day were removed from the site for six days during the cleanup phase of the operation.

The geologists believe that La Conchita will slide again. Once search, rescue and recovery operations ended, some of the residents whose homes were still habitable returned to La Conchita knowing full well the risks that lurk above their heads.

LA CONCHITA INCIDENT: OPERATIONAL RESOURCES

10 HAND CREWS

  • California Dept. of Forestry
  • Los Angeles County FD
  • Ventura County FD

20 ENGINES

  • Calif. Dept. of Emergency Services
  • Carpenteria FD
  • Oxnard FD
  • Santa Barbara City FD
  • Santa Barbara County FD
  • Ventura FD
  • Ventura County FD

7 FIRE DEPARTMENT URBAN SEARCH & RESCUE (US&R) TEAMS

  • Long Beach FD
  • Los Angeles FD
  • Los Angeles County FD
  • Montecito FD
  • Santa Barbara City FD
  • Santa Maria FD

1 LAW ENFORCEMENT SEARCH & RESCUE TEAM

  • Ventura County Sheriff

8 SEARCH DOGS

  • Anaheim
  • Calif. Dept. of Emergency Services
  • Los Angeles County
  • Montebello
  • Santa Barbara County
  • Ventura County Sheriff

MISCELLANEOUS

  • Ventura County Water Tender
  • Light-and-Air Unit
  • Geologists
  • Building and Safety
  • Heavy Equipment Specialists
  • Dozer Boss’

2 BULLDOZERS

  • Santa Barbara County
  • Ventura County

9 AMBULANCES

  • 6 Ground ambulances
  • 3 Air ambulances

PRIVATE HEAVY EQUIPMENT

  • 3 Bobcats
  • 4 Front-end loaders
  • 9 Excavators
  • 45 Dump trucks
  • 3 Tow trucks
  • 1 Water truck

LAW ENFORCEMENT

  • Ventura County Sheriff (8 security, 10 detectives)
  • Calif. Highway Patrol (12 patrol)
  • Coroner
  • Medical Examiner

7 CRITICAL INCIDENT STRESS MANAGERS

  • 5 Chaplains
  • 2 CISMs


Jim Arledge is a battalion chief and 26-year veteran with the Ventura County Fire Department. He assumed the rescue group supervisor position for the first operational period at La Conchita and functioned as operations section chief for night operations until rescue operations were discontinued. Arledge is currently assigned as an assistant to the department’s operations chief. He has a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Long Beach State University.

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