Wednesday, July 30, 2008


By Guy McCarthy

Everybody around here seems to have an answer to the question "Where were you at 11:42?"

Here's mine.

The image above, created in 2001 by NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, shows a part of the earth's crust that started trembling at 11:42 a.m. July 29 2008.

Visible are the Los Angeles metro region, San Diego, north Baja, the Transverse Range, the San Andreas Fault, the Salton Sea and a bit of the Colorado River. In the most obvious urbanized area, west of Cajon Pass and San Bernardino, lie the Chino Hills - epicenter for the 5.4-magnitude temblor.

What it felt like as it rumbled for 15 to 30 seconds depended on where you were.

This week I'm working night shifts at Parker Center, the aging Los Angeles Police Department headquarters in downtown L.A. When the quake struck Tuesday morning, I was at home sound asleep on the second story of a nearly 100-year-old house in an orange grove east of San Bernardino.

The grove itself is situated on a bed of alluvium - loose sediment borne out of the fault-riven, fault-raised mountains of the Transverse Range that includes the San Gabriels, San Bernardinos and San Jacintos.

In other words, like most of urbanized Southern California, the ground under the grove house is not bedrock. It's layers of eroded sand, pebbles and stones.

So no matter how ho-hum the temblor felt to some California old-timers, that 5.4 jolt about 30 miles west of my place made the second floor where I was sleeping shimmy like a belly dancer on stilts.

More on this later. I have another night shift at Parker Center and need to get some rest.

Monday, July 28, 2008

"big burn"

By Guy McCarthy

It's no secret that "big fire is big business," and that the costs of fighting ever-larger blazes in the West are "out of control," as the Los Angeles Times noted in A-section headlines Sunday for its first installment of a five-part series titled "Big Burn."

The Times also billed Sunday's package with centerpiece subheds: "Drought. Overgrown forests. Runaway Development."

There's not much news in the packaging. These themes have been reported many times before by newspapers across the West.

But if the rest of the series does anything to shed more light on the supercharged costs of rampant development in obvious danger zones, it will have been worth the space and effort.

Borrowing a phrase from D-Day architect and later President Dwight D. Eisenhower, some critics of the Forest Service several years ago began referring to beneficiaries of the annual blank-check spending spree in our war against fire as the "fire-industrial complex."

Local, state and federal agencies, along with private contractors, who reap the lion's share of taxpayer spending on firefighting in the West are among California's largest employers. The building industry is viewed by many economists as a primary barometer for the state's financial well-being.

So the Times, in undertaking "Big Burn," has targeted two major entities that sometimes enjoy the sort of favorable press coverage reserved for sacred cows - especially in recent years, as the imploding newspaper industry staggers toward an uncertain future.

One reason I'm writing about this is that four years ago I co-authored a series at The Sun newspaper in San Bernardino that foreshadowed a good deal of what "Big Burn" implies.

Titled "Unnatural Disasters," much of the work remains accessible online. A link is listed below. Conceived by a team of editors and reporters in the wake of catastrophic fires and floods in 2003, the series took its name from a statement made by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

After an estimated 19,000 people died in Venezuela flash floods and debris flows in December 1999, Annan dismissed descriptions of the carnage as a "natural disaster." The term was all but obsolete, as more and more people chose to live in obvious danger areas.

"The term 'natural disaster' has become an increasingly anachronistic misnomer," Annan was quoted in a U.S. Geological Survey report on the Venezuela devastation. "In reality, human behavior transforms natural hazards into what should really be called unnatural disasters."

The NASA photo above was taken Oct. 27, 2003, as the Old Fire left Del Rosa and north San Bernardino in smoking ruins and made its way towards Lake Arrowhead and Crestline. That fire contributed to six deaths and burned a thousand homes in less than five days. Sixteen more people died in Christmas Day post-fire flash floods.

Combined eventual costs of October 2003 fires in the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains exceeded $1.2 billion, according to the Forest Service.

Fire seasons since then have remained noteworthy for their destruction and escalating costs, and last year it seemed to cover all 12 months of the calendar. In October 2006, five Forest Service firefighters died in a firestorm trying to protect a vacant home in the San Jacinto Mountains. In October 2007, more fires across Southern California contributed to a dozen deaths, destroyed more than 1,500 homes, and scorched over 750 square miles.

Authorities say the Esperanza Fire was the work of an arsonist. They said the same about the Old Fire and several other destructive fires since 2003. Some people say accountability for these events has more to do with where we live and how we live.

Hopefully nothing else burns for the next 25 years. But we all know that's fantasy.

In the meantime, maybe people will read "Big Burn" and get more out of it than just a few cheap thrills. The overriding question is whether we take these matters seriously enough to craft realistic land use policy.

Until we do, sit back and enjoy the air shows. October and the Santa Anas are just around the corner.


Unnatural Disasters, The Sun

Big Burn, Los Angeles Times

Thursday, July 24, 2008

nasa images

PASADENA - The National Aeronautics and Space Administration opened easier access today to a significant part of its image and video archive.

All you need is a computer and an internet connection.

Located at, the site is supposed to combine 21 NASA imagery collections in a single, searchable online resource.

Enabled by a five-year partnership with Internet Archive, a non-profit digital library based in San Francisco, the new access is billed by NASA as no-cost to taxpayers, and images are free to the public.

The example above, which I'd never seen before, shows the Old Fire burning up-slope towards Crestline and Lake Arrowhead on Oct. 28, 2003. Click on it for full-screen view.


eagle canyon

by Guy McCarthy

CATHEDRAL CITY - Residents of a trailer park below Eagle Canyon who got mud-slammed by a flash flood on Sunday said government officials have been aware of the dangers for decades.

They were right.

County flood control archives in Riverside include a 1982 master drainage plan for the Palm Springs area with maps of Cathedral City and discussion of a recommended "Eagle Retention and Debris Basin."

"The presently undeveloped watershed of 1.75 square miles produces a controlling 100 year, 6 hour storm peak of 1180 cfs," the report notes.

In layman's terms this means that when it rains hard on the Santa Rosa Mountains south of Cathedral City, a lot of water, mud and rock can come out of Eagle Canyon at high speeds - up to 1,180 cubic feet per second in a rare and prolonged event.

The rain cells that marched across the Coachella Valley between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. Sunday were nowhere near a 100-year storm. In prepared notes for a press conference on Monday, Cathedral City Mayor Kathleen DeRosa called it a "minor event - no more than a five-year storm in a very localized area."

Nonetheless, the sudden, pounding rains unleashed torrents of fast-moving water and mobilized tons of material in Eagle Canyon - including refuse that has been dumped there illegally. The flash flood also "pushed tons of dirt from a construction site into south portions of the city, flooding a trailer park and an auto dealership, along with 15 to 20 other businesses," according to the National Weather Service.

Portions of the 1982 maps placed side-by-side show a trailer park below Eagle Canyon and south of State Highway 111. They also show a trailer park on the north side of the 111, where Tramview Mobile Home Park stands today.

As reported here earlier this week, many Tramview residents were livid Monday as they struggled to clear mud and water out of their homes. They blamed city officials for knowing about the flood threat, and for talking about it but taking no action.

They also blamed the city for failing to maintain the site where the old trailer park across the street used to be. That is apparently where the tons of construction site dirt cited by the Weather Service came from.

At the Monday press conference, DeRosa called the sudden storms on Sunday "an act of God" and said the debris that came down to Tramview came from Eagle Canyon. When told that some residents said dirt on the former trailer park site was what hit their community, DeRosa said Cathedral City had maintained the site to code since the demolition.

"I can't tell where that dirt came from," DeRosa said. "Dirt is dirt . . . At the end of the day it doesn't make any difference whose dirt it is. They're upset and they have every right to be."

A flood control dam in Eagle Canyon would cost $28 million at current estimates, said Cathedral City communications director Allen Howe.

Whether city officials can convince county, state and federal authorities to pay for such a structure remains to be seen. In the meantime, Sunday's flash floods exposed a recurring theme in local land use oversight and developers' decisions.

Sometimes governments give the green light to build in high fire hazard areas or floodplains first, then wait for foreseeable disasters to prove that somebody needs to pay for protection.

The questions raised have also been asked before - who is accountable for the present situation, and who should pay?


More photos at

map details

flood aftermath

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


By Guy McCarthy

CATHEDRAL CITY - Residents of a mobile home park tried to clean up Monday from a flash flood that roared out of Eagle Canyon, left at least one residence unsafe to live in, and filled many other homes with mud, water and stench.

Some worked on their knees with wet-vacs, others worked with shovels. Many of them angrily blamed the city for the mess, and for years of talking about flood control but doing nothing about it.

The mayor of this desert community 110 miles east of Los Angeles said residents of Tramview Mobile Home Park have every right to be upset, but she dismissed notions that Cathedral City is solely responsible for the mud that flowed into their homes.

Mayor Kathleen DeRosa underlined Monday afternoon at a press conference that the city's local emergency declaration paves the way for owners of damaged property to seek reimbursement from FEMA.

"That's what's frustrating about being a resident and dealing with city officials," said Marc Kamm, 60, who emptied trash cans full of ruined carpets into a dumpster before he went to City Hall to hear what DeRosa had to say.

"They've known about the flood problem since 1986," Kamm said. "They knew about it, they talked about it, they passed the blame back and forth. Why didn't they do anything about it?"

Cost is one reason, DeRosa said.

Putting a dam in Eagle Canyon - a massive mountain watershed that lies under several local jurisdictions - would cost $28 million at current flood control estimates, said city communications director Allen Howe.

Other residents who did not come to City Hall said the city is accountable in more ways than one. A few years ago Cathedral City oversaw the demolition of a trailer park across the street and uphill from Tramview, and at the same time eliminated adequate flood control measures.

"It's their mud," said Paul Jaurequi, a manager at Tramview. "They should be cleaning it up."

Kami Sawatsky, 57, agreed.

"It's just a mess out here," she said, showing a visitor mud on the floors of a home that was being renovated. "People are angry, too mad to talk."

One resident who did not want to be identified got into a shouting match with a city employee driving a loader, and ended the exchange sarcastically with "You have a nice day, too!"

Jaurequi's office has windows facing the slopes, and he has a decent view of the mouth of Eagle Canyon.

"I looked out and saw a big river coming off the mountain," Jaurequi said of the Sunday flash flood. "Six-thirty in the morning and I saw it just run right through this park. We couldn't get out because the water was up to our knees.

"This happened in 1989 and the city knew about the problem," Jaurequi said. "And here we are again. The same thing happened."

DeRosa called the sudden storms on Sunday "an act of God" and said the debris that came down to Tramview came from Eagle Canyon. When told that some residents said dirt on the former trailer park site was what hit their community, DeRosa said Cathedral City had maintained the site to code since the demolition.

"I can't tell where that dirt came from," DeRosa said. "Dirt is dirt . . . At the end of the day it doesn't make any difference whose dirt it is. They're upset and they have every right to be."


More photos at

tramview - slideshow

tramview - set

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

yucaipa ridge

by Guy McCarthy

MILL CREEK CANYON (July 8 2008) - Last week as the Ridge Fire burned above Yucaipa, anxious residents on the other side of the mountain watched the rising smoke column with a sense of dread.

"I was really concerned at first that most of the aircraft were assigned to fires up north," Ben James, 29, said Tuesday. "But it seemed like there was an awful lot of aircraft on the fire almost immediately."

James lives in Mountain Home Village, a tiny enclave of about 170 year-round residents, situated just north of Yucaipa and next to the boulder-strewn wash in the bottom of Mill Creek Canyon.

Being so close to the water, the trees and vegetation here are lush and green, unlike the tinder-dry chaparral and thousands of dead trees cloaking the ridges above. Most of Mill Creek Canyon has not burned in a century or more, according to foresters and fire historians.

The Ridge Fire burned about 250 acres on Thursday July 3, erupting in near 100-degree temperatures that afternoon. Initial fears the fire would spill over the ridge into Mill Creek Canyon were doused as quickly as the flames. There was little or no fire activity in the burned areas Friday and Saturday.

Authorities said line-digging crews contained the fire by 6 p.m. Sunday. An investigation to determine the cause remained underway Tuesday afternoon, according to San Bernardino National Forest spokesman John Miller. Arson and fireworks had already been ruled out as possible causes, Miller said.

So while thousands of firefighters continued battling more than 300 different blazes from Santa Barbara to Big Sur and all the way to Oregon, the Ridge Fire appeared little more than a footnote to an already catastrophically costly fire season statewide.

The short story was "Good save. Mill Creek didn't burn."

But there's always a flip side when tons of dead fuel don't burn. The threat remains.

"The dead trees are a concern," James said Tuesday. He was minding his two children, ages 18 months and three years old, while they played in the front yard. "But I don't know what to do, other than burn it down."


Whenever a ridge is on fire in the nation's most populous mountain forest, the response is swift. On Thursday a group of Forest Service firefighters known as Front Country Crew Six, from Lytle Creek, were among the first assigned to face flames near several hillside homes above Yucaipa.

"We were on initial attack on the right flank," Engineer Jimmy Butler said Tuesday, standing with several crew members near the Ridge Fire's point of origin. "It was a typical slope-driven fire. The winds weren't really a factor. Winds were normal, light, up-canyon winds, like today."

In other words, little to no wind, with 5 mph breezes at times.

On Thursday, Butler's crew and scores of other firefighters worked on steep slopes with loose rocks in blistering temperatures. At least one firefighter was treated for heat-related symptoms that day. But the hard work paid off. No homes burned, and the fire all but died by the end of the day.

Asked about dead trees on the other side of the ridge, Butler and other crew members acknowledged the remaining fire hazard.

"The north-facing aspect has a lot of heavy fuels and dense vegetation," Butler said. "It's an ongoing concern."

"It was a really good catch in that sense," said Mike Duran, another member of Front Country Crew Six. "We had limited aircraft, so we look at it as a great job by the ground crews . . . and the engine crews. They did a great job putting hose lines into the steeps."

Crew Boss Robert Moreno said there is no doubt more needs to be done to cut down dead and dying trees.

"The best thing that can be done are the fuel breaks and brush removal, around towns like Angelus Oaks," Moreno said. "They have really good treatment there. I've seen fire go from untreated areas into treated, and it slows right down. Forest rangers are aware of the potential for catastrophic fires in these mountain communities."


Richard Minnich, who studies forestry and fire history in Southern California and Baja at UC-Riverside, is an outspoken critic of federal forest management. He contends that a century of strict fire suppression on public lands has helped create the current potential for ever-larger fires, an unnatural consequence in a region where plants are designed by nature to burn.

Minnich has warned for years about the dense stands of chaparral on Yucaipa Ridge and in Mill Creek Canyon. Given the light wind conditions on Thursday, Minnich believes forest managers missed a chance to burn off a great deal of hazardous fuel.

"They're only sticking their finger in the dyke when they put a fire out in those conditions," Minnich said Tuesday. "In Mill Creek they now have 120-year-old fuel on those north-facing slopes.

"It's okay to praise the firefighters," Minnich said. "But all they did was prevent it from burning, and it will want to burn again. Next time it could be a Santa Ana wind, and they won't have a chance of controlling that. . . . It was good weather to let that one roll as far as it could. They can let it burn all the way down to Mill Creek. That wash is a huge fuel break."

Aggressive fire suppression like that practised last week is part of the problem, Minnich said. It helped kill many of the dead trees that pose part of the continuing hazard.

"The cause of the fire is the vegetation, not the people who started it," Minnich said. "What are they trying to protect? The vegetation is the fuel, and it needs to burn. The reason so many trees died recently is a hundred years of fire suppression. Too many trees drinking too little water."


Minnich's views run contrary to U.S. Forest Service policy.

"This week would have been an inappropriate time to have 'fire use' like that, to let it burn," said forest spokesman Miller. "We don't have the resources right now. Further, any community in the forest is at risk. If we have a fire start anywhere in the forest it is an immediate threat to at least one of our communities. It is our policy that we will suppress all fires."

Miller spoke in part for Mike Dietrich, chief of fire and aviation management for the San Bernardino National Forest. Reached by phone Tuesday, Dietrich indicated he had his hands full. He was one of two incident commanders on the 80,000-acre Basin Complex Fire burning in and around Big Sur.

Miller said he is familiar with Minnich's work and he was not dismissive of Minnich's views. He pointed out that Front Country Ranger Gabe Garcia, of Lytle Creek, is in the process of conducting a detailed fireshed assessment for fuel treatment plans in Yucaipa, Oak Glen, Beaumont and Banning - areas that Minnich has warned about repeatedly.

"We have been studying the area for fuel treatment programs and that would include prescribed burns," Miller said. "I understand what Minnich is saying, but we just can't do it the way he is suggesting. Based on our history in the forest, we are not going to let a fire burn ever."

Situated above the Cajon Pass and San Gorgonio Pass, the San Bernardino National Forest is home to some of the most fire-prone communities in the United States. Recent disastrous fires here include the Old and Grand Prix of October 2003, which contributed to six deaths and burned more than 1,000 homes; the Esperanza Fire of October 2006, which killed five U.S. Forest Service firefighters and burned 34 homes; and the Slide and Grass Valley fires of October 2007, which burned 450 homes.

For the past few weeks, it may have been a secret relief for some residents here to watch another part of the state grapple with continuing fires and evacuations.

But according to Minnich, until we do something about fuel loads in Southern California, we're going to keep repeating ourselves.


More photos at yucaipa ridge set

mill creek canyon slideshow

Video at youtube