Rivers Of Mud

Larry Collins details the massive mud slide and debris flows in Malibu and Laguna, CA and how emergency personnel reacted to the disaster.


On Monday, Feb. 23 1998, fire departments and rescue agencies braced as the worst El Niño -related storm of the current season bore down on Southern California. The region was already waterlogged after a week of pounding downpours that pushed annual rainfall totals to nearly double that of the...


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On Monday, Feb. 23 1998, fire departments and rescue agencies braced as the worst El Niño -related storm of the current season bore down on Southern California. The region was already waterlogged after a week of pounding downpours that pushed annual rainfall totals to nearly double that of the average year.

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Photo by Gene Blevins/CFPA
Chuck Ruddell, a member of the Los Angeles County Swiftwater Rescue Team, throws a rope pack across a river where a horse became stuck after traveling downstream.

 


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Photo by Gene Blevins/CFPA
Scott Meadows, of the California Fire Photographers Association (CFPA), has a tough time getting through the mud inside the living room of a house after a mud flow went right through the structure.

 

The ground was saturated, unable to absorb much more water. As a result, nearly all precipitation was running off the steep slopes, where it was funneled into swollen creeks and rivers. Steeps hillsides - water-laden, heavy, unstable and prone to sliding even in dry weather - were now at the point where gravity might take over and force slopes to seek their angles of repose.

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Photo by Larry Collins
These large boulders were deposited by years of mud and debris flows. Rescuers should remember that these boulder were flowing in a stream of mud, rock and other storm debris before they settled out in their present locations.

Based on past history and warnings from geologists, local officials knew that massive mudslides and mud and debris flows were probably imminent in some areas. Yet, they were caught in a dilemma: Current geological capabilities were not yet honed to the point where accurate predictions could be made about exactly which hillsides might slip, or exactly where mud and debris flows would actually form. (Ironically, one group of geologists was, at that time, fulfilling the terms of a grant from the National Science Foundation to use real-time aerial surveys in the study of the movements of Los Angeles-area hillsides during the storms, part of an effort to enhance the ability to predict when and where certain slides were most likely to occur.)

For fire and other municipal officials, there were too many unanswered questions: Should evacuations be ordered in areas prone to mud and debris flows and mudslides? If so, who would decide exactly which streets and homes should be evacuated? Would it then be necessary to evacuate the same areas every time rain threatened? At what level of precipitation should evacuations commence?

Without solid answers to these daunting questions, officials were essentially left with one choice: To take appropriate precautions (including pre-deployment of specialized resources), maintain a high state of vigilance, be prepared to order evacuations when actual slope slippage or mud and debris flows were reported, and respond quickly to actual slides and flows.

In Los Angeles and Orange counties, nearly two dozen Swiftwater Rescue Teams were pre-deployed in strategic locations to respond to swiftwater incidents as well as mudslides and debris flows. Bulldozers, skip loaders and other pieces of heavy equipment were moved into high-risk zones. Camp crews, normally used to cut line during wildland fires, were mobilized to assist firefighters with manpower-intensive emergency operations like placing sandbags, stabilizing levees, shoring collapse areas, and digging through mud to find victims.

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Photo by Gene Blevins/CFPA
Firehouse® Magazine correspondent Mike Meadows, of the California Fire Photographers Association (CFPA), looks over the damage caused by one of the California mudslides.

The storm struck with full force, causing flooding and deaths from San Luis Obispo, CA, to Tijuana, Mexico. In one day, the following events occurred: In Santa Maria, 100 miles north of Los Angeles, two California Highway Patrol officers were killed when their vehicle was swept into a raging river that washed out a major highway. Homes were flooded in Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez. The Ventura County Fire Department rescued several people who were stranded by overflowing rivers. The Los Angeles City Fire Department performed a number of rescues, including the helicopter rescue of a man and his two dogs from a flood-control channel.

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