Rivers Of Mud

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

On the same day, the Los Angeles County Fire Department performed 35 swiftwater rescues in its 3,000 square mile jurisdiction. A single Los Angeles County unit, Air Squad 8 (pre-deployed with a helicopter-based swiftwater rescue team aboard), supported by other fire and rescue units, performed 18 swiftwater rescues in a 24-hour period. A Los Angeles County Sheriff helicopter rescued half a dozen other people. A man was swept to his death while attempting to assist a neighbor whose car was trapped in an Arizona crossing in San Dimas Canyon. Los Angeles County fire and sheriff units spent an entire day searching for the victim, to no avail.

And in Orange County, all hell broke loose once again. Laguna Beach, which was the site of a major conflagration during the so-called Fire Storms of 1993, was among the hardest hit areas. As often happens, the storm reached a crescendo just as dozens of slides, accidents, and debris flows were occurring simultaneously. This is a familiar scenario to firefighters who work in places like Laguna Beach and Malibu. Because the slopes are pre-loaded to slide by previous storms, and because the run off tends to reach maximum force at many places at once, the number of incidents seems to blossom in a burst of activity that can quickly stretch fire and rescue resources.

Attempting to maneuver fire engines and other rescue units to the scene of a mudslide or swiftwater rescue under such conditions can be difficult and dangerous, made worse by residents trying to escape in their own vehicles, and the knowledge that escape routes for rescuers may be blocked if mudslides and debris flows occur during the course of emergency operations. Under conditions of darkness and stormy weather, helicopter flight may not be possible, so ground teams are often left to their own devices.

Photo by Larry Collins
A mud and debris flow in the Las Flores Canyon area of Malibu, CA, which was incinerated by the 1993 Old Topanga Fire. Under major storm conditions, the boulders and mud in this photo may coalesce to become flow that can wipe out homes and people downstream.

Such was the situation that faced firefighters and lifeguards in Laguna Canyon when the storm reached its crescendo in the darkness of Feb. 23. Just before midnight, residents of Laguna Canyon were awakened by a deafening downpour as the skies opened up with the heaviest rainfall of the day. Then the electricity went dead, plunging them into darkness. In an instant, the mountain above the homes seemed to give way, sending rivers of mud crashing through the walls of apartments and houses.

People were swept from their beds, from their rooms and in some cases completely out of their homes. Others were trapped inside their homes by mud that rose nearly to the ceilings. One woman reported hearing "the mountain moving." Instinctively, she and her husband moved to their baby. The mother grabbed the infant from her crib. In an instant, a flow of mud and debris literally came through the walls of her home, flushing mother and daughter through the building. The baby was ripped from her arms and disappeared in the darkness. Still caught in the avalanche-like wave of debris, the mother could not even scream because her mouth was filled with mud. She literally had to scoop mud from her mouth with her hands in order to breath and yell for help.

When the flow subsided, the parents were buried in mud, trapped several feet apart, pinned in place by debris and remnants of the building that disintegrated around them. They could hear the baby crying, but neither was able to move toward the sound. They cried for help. Soon, the baby's crying stopped. Fortunately, neighbors rushed in from adjoining apartments to help. One man came across the silent baby completely by accident as he fumbled in the mud looking for survivors. The baby was covered in mud, and the man later described her as "a ball of mud." Firefighters cleared the baby's airway, and the infant survived. The parents were eventually freed, both suffering from hypothermia and other injuries.

Elsewhere, the situation was not so good. Two people were missing, and resources were scarce in the mountainous little neighborhood. Mudslides and debris flows were occurring in other sections of Laguna, and dispatchers were unable to keep up with the 911 calls. Firefighters were unable to get through to the main debris flow, and mutual aid was requested from the Orange County Fire Authority. Laguna Beach lifeguards committed themselves to physical rescue operations at the scene of the biggest debris flow. They accessed the site in Jeeps. Working in waist-deep mud, in a pouring rain, and equipped with wetsuits and other water rescue gear, six lifeguards made a house-to-house search.

Photo by Larry Collins
Mud and debris literally flowing off steep slopes during a storm.


Photo by Larry Collins
Moving mountains - steep slopes and unstable soil combine with rain to mobilize large sections of earth. This is the type of debris that eventually settles in canyon bottoms, and may later be mobilized in the form of mud and debris flows.


Reports indicate that communications were interrupted or overloaded, and the multitude of emergency calls strained the ability of dispatchers to assess the extent of the disaster. Lifeguards radioed for help, advising of "a very large slide" and that the "mudslide is growing." Throughout the incident, secondary slides and debris flows occurred, threatening the rescuers. Eventually, more than a dozen residents were rescued. Two occupants died in the mud, and their bodies were recovered the next day.

Larry Collins is an 18-year member of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. He is a paramedic and one of three captains assigned to USAR-1, the Urban Search and Rescue Unit of the department's Special Operations Division. A member FEMA's USAR Incident Support Team at the Oklahoma City bombing and Assistant Leader of the LACoFD FEMA USAR Task Force at the Northridge Meadows Apartment collapse in the Northridge earthquake, Collins is a member of the LACoFD Anti-Terrorism Work Group, serves on several local and national committees, and serves on the department's Swiftwater Rescue Teams.