Sunday, December 9, 2007
by Guy McCarthy
RIVERSIDE, Dec. 7 -- A task force of scientists, builders and elected leaders from across Southern California met Friday in a government building situated on a low spot next to the Santa Ana River.
Their goal -- to begin crafting a law that will help guide safer development on alluvial fans, the slopes of mountain sediment that comprise so much of the remaining lucrative land in 10 California counties.
Erosion experts and historians took turns evoking the Christmas 2003 post-fire debris flow deaths of 16 people north of San Bernardino, as well as other deadly and destructive flood events that have periodically plagued the region over the past 150 years.
"Post-fire flooding conditions remain elevated for up to five years after a wildfire and the cycle repeats with the next wildfire," the charter of the Alluvial Fan Task Force states. "Alluvial fans are part of a larger system with flood risks that extend beyond the boundaries of the fans."
The timeliness of the meeting was underscored by reports that rain and flood watch warnings Friday kept a number of the most qualified experts away.
Not for fear of rising waters in the dam-controlled Santa Ana, but out of concern for thousands of residents who live in and below more than 750 square miles of watersheds that burned in October and November.
Officials from Orange and San Bernardino counties were notably absent. Though the storm systems crossing Southern California had not lived up to dire forecasts, mandatory evacuations had been ordered in at least one canyon community in the Cleveland National Forest. Road crews and public safety agencies were also on alert in densely-populated communities of the San Bernardino National Forest.
Task force members know they face a formidable challenge -- convincing local land use agencies and the residents they represent that yet another layer of regulation may be necessary to prevent foreseeable catastrophe.
The record-setting rain season of 2004-05 illustrated the costs of ignoring Southern California's flood history.
More than 1,800 homes in six counties were damaged or destroyed in storms that came more than a year after the devastating fires of October 2003, according to estimates compiled by the state Office of Emergency Services, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Even if it does not rain again in Southern California for the next five years, land use here will remain a topic of debate from Sacramento to the nation's capital. The firestorms of two recent Octobers, 2003 and 2007, killed more than 30 and destroyed more than 5,000 homes -- not counting related post-fire flood deaths and destruction.
VOICES OF THE PAST
Combined fire-flood costs in Southern California since October 2003 total more than 50 dead -- including six firefighter deaths -- and yet-to-be determined billions in emergency response, watershed damage, property losses, clean-up and rebuilding costs.
In San Bernardino County alone, the 2003 Old and Grand Prix fires and subsequent floods resulted in 22 deaths and cost an estimated $1.3 billion.
Dr. Kent Schofield, professor emeritus of history at Cal State San Bernardino and a founding member of the Water Resources Institute at CSUSB, compared photos from 1904 and 2007 to close his presentation to the Alluvial Fan Task Force on Friday.
Schofield presented two different views of north San Bernardino and the notch of Waterman Canyon, marked by the iconic hillside arrowhead that still serves as a symbol for San Bernardino County.
"Fortunately, there's not a great deal left to burn," Schofield said of the 2007 photo.
The same is true across great swathes of Southern California today. Like so many truisms in this disaster-prone region, each bit of good news comes with an equal dose of bad.
'THERE'S A PUBLIC INTEREST HERE'
More than 25 years ago a young firefighter named Jim Wilkins completed a 60-minute documentary titled "San Bernardino Under Siege." Filmed during and after the Panorama Fire of 1980, the documentary includes a frank summary of what fire-flood costs mean to society at large.
The words of CDF Chief Don Banghart ring as true today across Southern California as they did a quarter-century ago.
"So you hate to control people's very lives and tell them how to build their house and what to build it out of," Banghart said. "Or how long the cul-de-sac needs to be or how much water they have to have in their development.
"But I think we can see and everybody who does see much more clearly after the disaster -- one of this magnitude," Banghart said. "It's one of the few positive things that come out of it.
"I think people can clearly see there's a public interest here, and that government suffers," Banghart said. "You know there's a lot of money spent putting out a fire like this, or these fires. And we are affecting a whole bunch of people in ways that you know a lot of them can never really recover from that.
"And I think there's more than 'Just let people do what they like to do,' " Banghart said. "There's much more of a concern for 'Let's take a hand in this and do a little better job of comprehensive planning.' "
The next Alluvial Fan Task Force meeting is scheduled for Jan. 4. The location has yet to be determined.
Video at http://www.youtube.com/profile?user=45IRISH