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‘It’s crushing’: California cleans up mudslide damage

Brandon Gallegos
California Mudslides
Posted at 1:35 PM, Sep 15, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-15 16:35:23-04

Rescuers searched Wednesday for a person missing in a mudslide that swept boulders down fire-scarred slopes and damaged or destroyed 30 homes in the Southern California mountains as firefighters in the northern part of the state tried to contain an explosive week-old blaze.

Dogs aided the hunt for a person missing in a heavily damaged area of the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles where thunderstorms unleashed rocks, trees, and earth that washed away cars, buried homes, and affected 3,000 residents in two remote communities.

The force of mud barreling down the mountain late Monday drove a dumpster through the walls of the Oak Glen Steakhouse and Saloon. A massive tree lodged in the dining room, muck was waist-deep in the kitchen and wine bottles were slathered in mud.

“We have trees in there ... 30 feet long that came straight through our building,” said Brandon Gallegos, whose family owns the restaurant. “It’s crushing."

As the search, cleanup, and damage assessment continued, firefighters in Northern California tried to tamp down a fire that flared up Tuesday and jumped a fork of the American River and on Wednesday became the largest blaze in the state this year. Evacuations were increased to more than 11,000 people as the fire threatened over 9,000 structures.

The muddy damage in Oak Glen and Forest Falls served as a powerful warning to residents of areas that have burned or are facing high fire danger of the damage wildfires can cause months or even years after flames are extinguished and the smoke clears.

An intense amount of rain even over a short period of time can have catastrophic effects on hillsides where fire has stripped vegetation that once held the ground intact.

In January 2018, mudslides thundered down a steep mountainside that burned a month earlier and killed more than 20 people in the tony beachside town of Montecito near Santa Barbara. The worst of the rain fell in a 15-minute span with Montecito getting little more than a half-inch in five minutes.

Jim Topelski, a San Bernardino County fire chief, said mudslides had been a concern in the area burned by the deadly El Dorado Fire that was sparked two years ago when a couple used a smoke device to reveal their baby’s gender. The couple was charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of a firefighter.

On Monday, nearly 2 inches of rain fell top Yucaipa Ridge between Oak Glen, home to apple orchards that are a fall tourist destination, and Forest Falls, once a summer getaway for cabin owners that has become a bedroom community.

“The mud and debris flow came down through the high steep terrain,” Topeleski said. “This entire area is blanketed with up to 6 feet of mud, debris, large boulders.”

Mudflows had washed into Forest Falls a month ago, closing roads, but damaging no homes.

Residents in the area had been warned of the danger lurking above them, so they were dismayed but not surprised, Gallegos said.

“We were just hoping and praying that it wouldn’t happen, but it did happen,” he said.

A video captured the spectacle of mud flowing like lava past the sign for Gallegos' restaurant under sunny skies. It was followed seconds later by a faster-moving and deeper surge of sludge carrying logs and sweeping across a road.

Out of view in the video was the damage being done as tons of mud poured into the tavern.

Evacuation orders remained in two areas over possible mudslides as well as to help workers clear roads buried in the muck and restore water and power.

The burst of rain followed a rare tropical storm that ended a lengthy statewide heat wave last week that had pushed electrical supplies to the brink of power outages.

While the temporary relief was welcome in the drought-stricken West, a spate of flash floods that followed have wreaked havoc in many places.

Cars were marooned over the weekend in Death Valley National Park and new flooding again Tuesday closed all entrances into the park. Only the east entrance was open Wednesday and the western entrance is closed indefinitely because of extensive road damage.

In a desert area outside Las Vegas, a stranded truck driver and two people in a van had to be rescued after thunderstorms dumped more than 2 inches of rain within three hours early Wednesday and washed basketball-sized rocks onto roads in Valley of Fire State Park.

It was a different story in Northern California, where the Mosquito Fire burned more buildings Tuesday afternoon, just hours after officials reported making “great strides.” The blaze on Wednesday surpassed the size of the previous largest fire in 2022, the McKinney Fire, although this season has seen a fraction of last year’s fire activity so far.

Stronger winds pushed out a smoke inversion layer Tuesday that had been stifling the blaze and gave fresh oxygen to the flames, McLean said. The area is full of extremely dry vegetation that was rapidly igniting, challenging both firefighters on the ground and air.

Scientists say climate change has made the West warmer and drier over the last three decades and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive. In the last five years, California has experienced the largest and most destructive fires in its history.

Firefighters were able to keep flames from crossing a key road and entering the town of Foresthill and cooler temperatures overnight helped keep it in check, fire spokesperson Scott McLean said Wednesday. He said some buildings burned, but the exact number won’t be known until damage assessment teams were able to canvas the area.

Breezes were calmer on Wednesday afternoon and crews and helicopters knocked down hotspots.

“It's trying to come back to life,” McLean said from his perch overlooking the fire. “But nothing like yesterday.”

He said evacuations remain in place because of the unpredictable nature of the winds, which typically blow in the direction of several canyons in the area, which could rapidly spread flames if gusts pick up.

The blaze 110 miles northeast of San Francisco was one of three large fires in the state and had grown to roughly 100 square miles, with 20% containment Wednesday, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire. At least 64 homes and other buildings have been destroyed.

The Fairview Fire was burning about 75 miles southeast of Los Angeles. The 44-square-mile blaze was 75% contained by Wednesday night. Two people died fleeing the fire, which destroyed at least 35 homes and other structures in Riverside County.