Sunday, December 9, 2007
by Guy McCarthy
WATERMAN CANYON, Nov. 9 - Ruins are still here, and so are the rocks. Remains of the victims are buried elsewhere.
But other evidence of what happened in Waterman Canyon on Christmas 2003 may now help save lives.
Nearly two years after 16 people died in post-fire flash floods north of San Bernardino, federal scientists in 2005 launched a prototype debris flow warning system that focused on the Old and Grand Prix firestorm footprints.
A similar warning system would be a valuable tool to help protect vulnerable Southern California residents living in and below
watersheds charred in the region's most recent wildfires -- even if no hard rain falls for the next five years.
At least one public safety official coping with fire's aftermath in at-risk communities wants a warning system in the near future.
"We're hoping to get sensors in here to monitor run-off," Orange County Fire Authority Chief Chip Prather said in a phone conversation Friday.
"All I want is the information," Prather said. "So I can tell residents, 'You might want to consider leaving,' or that 'You must get out of here. There's nothing we can do to hold it back.' "
Prather spoke after a helicopter flight over nearly denuded ridges and drainages that burned in the Santiago Fire, including the hard-hit enclave in Modjeska Canyon.
In spite of forecasts for another dry winter, Prather said he and other officials aren't taking any chances.
"It's not going to take very much rain to cause a lot of run-off," Prather said. "And it won't be just water. It will be debris and
Local, state and federal agencies are working together to prepare for a worst-case scenario, Prather said. But they still don't know what to expect.
"I'm confident we have the right people in here assessing the situation," Prather said. "We have BAER (Burned Area Emergency
Response) teams all over the place. Crews are already clearing debris out of creek channels and along the roadsides. They're putting in a lot of hay bales. It really is a race against Mother Nature."
Hundreds of canyon residents who evacuated during the Santiago Fire have returned. The fire ravaged more than 28,000 acres and was declared 100 percent contained Thursday.
"We're a long way from done," Prather said. "You've seen the Grand Prix and the Old Fire. We're worried, I can tell you that. We're definitely worried."
A CHURNING WALL
Waterman Canyon, where Christmas 2003 survivors described a churning wall of mud, rock and trees that killed nine children and five adults, is a vast mountain watershed compared to the lower-ridged draws and gullies of the Cleveland National Forest. Two others died that Christmas Day in nearby Cable Canyon, at the mouth of another immense cleft in the San Bernardino mountains.
But smaller canyons can be deathtraps too, especially if they are fed by adjacent burned watersheds. In February 1978, a post-fire debris flow killed 13 people in a canyon community called Hidden Springs, in the Angeles National Forest.
About 22 months after the Christmas 2003 deaths, the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced its intent to test a prototype debris-flow warning system across Southern California.
In a September 2005 report, NOAA and USGS officials stated they would focus intensive research on the 2003 firestorm footprint scorched in mountain watersheds of western San Bernardino and eastern Los Angeles counties.
The report cited the 16 Christmas Day deaths, as well as San Bernardino County public works costs of $26.5 million for road repairs and removal of 4.1 million cubic meters of debris from local flood control basins.
Forecasters and geologists said they planned to use mobile radar equipment, rain guages and other instruments in strategic locations such as Lytle Creek and Waterman Canyon.
The immediate goal was to produce detailed warning maps in real time, based on up-to-the minute forecasts and precipitation measurements as storm systems approached hazard-prone communities.