Thursday, November 20, 2008


Cal Fire investigator Monday in Riverside County.

By Guy McCarthy

A week ago today, nothing had burned.

Not in the past month anyway.

Now scientists are studying massive tracts of blackened earth from Santa Barbara and Sylmar to the Santa Ana River, to quantify how the region's most recent firestorms will impact water quality and slope stability.

Lead agencies include the Orange County Flood Control District and the Orange County Water District.

"The sheriff, the fire authority and the flood control district are working together to understand the impacts of the fire," Nadeem Majaj, assistant chief engineer for Orange County flood control said today in a phone interview.

"We're meeting next week to strategize our preparations for the winter," Majaj said. "We've already inspected dams, basins and channels, in particular the Carbon Canyon Dam. We'll be providing guidance to cities as to what they can expect."

The Freeway Complex Fire burned more than 47 square miles and destroyed or damaged 313 homes, according to Orange County Fire Authority estimates updated today.

Destroyed home Monday in Yorba Linda.

The Freeway Complex Fire started Saturday in Corona and burned into three other counties.

But Orange County will bear the brunt of impacts from the fire, said Jeff Beehler, environmental project manager for the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority (SAWPA).

In November 2003, the Riverside-based authority prepared a detailed report on how the Old, Grand Prix and Padua fires of October that year could impact the Santa Ana watershed, which is home to more than 5 million people.

The watershed also supplies most of the drinking water for people who live there, according to SAWPA.

A year ago, the authority issued a map showing six fires that impacted the Santa Ana watershed in October 2007, including the Santiago Fire in Orange County and the Slide and Grass Valley fires in the San Bernardino National Forest.

An updated report on fire impacts from SAWPA this year is unlikely, Beehler said Wednesday.

"This is going to impact Orange County," Beehler said.

Last year after the October 2007 fires, the U.S. Geological Survey prepared a report on how ash and burned soil could adversely affect water quality, human health, endangered species, and contribute to debris flow or flooding hazards.

To mitigate potential effects from the burned areas on drinking water supply, the Orange County Water District is diverting as little water as possible from the Santa Ana River into its deep recharge basins, according to Eleanor Torres, a spokeswoman for the district.

The district has more than 1,600 monitoring stations to ensure water quality, Torres said in a phone interview.

"What we're hoping is the first heavy rains will flush the river out," Torres said.

Local, state and federal agencies typically cooperate to form Burned Area Emergency Response teams after any major fire in Southern California. The most recent episode of catastrophic firestorms is no exception.

Destroyed home Monday in Yorba Linda.

Photos by Guy McCarthy


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