Wednesday, January 27, 2010

skulls


Investigators above Big Tujunga the day after Christmas

By Guy McCarthy

Two weeks ago homicide detectives released photos of three rings and a gold necklace found near two skulls discovered Dec. 24 and Dec. 26 in a burned-out mountain gulch of the Angeles National Forest.

Plucked from ashes of the Station Fire but believed to pre-date the massive blaze, the skulls and the jewelry remain an unsolved mystery, said Los Angeles County sheriff's Homicide Lt. Mike Rosson.

"There has been no identification, by DNA or other means," Rosson said today in a telephone interview.



The rings - with red, green, and black stones - appear to fit together but that hasn't shed any light on the investigation, according to Rosson.

The skulls belonged to a man and woman, according to the coroner. The jewelry may have belonged to one or both of them.

The first skull was found Christmas Eve by hikers in a burned-out draw below the Angeles Forest (N3) Highway, near mile marker 19.36, homicide detectives said. The skull had an apparent bullet hole in it.

Deputies from the Crescenta Valley Sheriff's Station responded to the site that day and secured the area. The draw is part of the Lucas Creek drainage, which feeds Big Tujunga Canyon.

On Dec. 26, about a dozen forensic specialists, coroner's investigators and homicide detectives returned to dig and sift through dirt, rocks and debris in the gully.

Using soft-bristle brushes to excavate, wood-framed screens to sift through material, and a dog trained at sniffing out human remains, they found the second skull close to where the first was located.

The second skull had signs of trauma, said Steve Whitmore, a spokesman for the Sheriff's Department.

The gender of each set of remains was determined by examination of other bones collected in the steep, fire-denuded gulch, Coroner's Investigator Jerry McKibben said.

The skull with the apparent bullet hole belonged to a man and the second skull belonged to a woman, McKibben said.

At least one of the skulls was partly burned but they appeared to pre-date the Station Fire, which burned 250 square miles of the Angeles National Forest in September and August.

Detectives have not said when the rings and necklace were discovered, only that they were found where the skulls and other remains were located.

Rosson urged anyone with information to call Detective Philip Guzman or Detective John Duncan at (323) 890-5500.

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Ring photo from Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

Dec. 26 photo by Guy McCarthy.

Monday, January 25, 2010

mountain access


Cucamonga and east San Gabriels from below Forest Falls

By Guy McCarthy

Updated at 7 p.m.

MILL CREEK CANYON - All San Bernardino Mountain roads were re-opened this evening to visitors trying to reach Bear Valley and some of the Southland's most popular ski resorts.

The lifting of the closure was possible in part because the City of Big Bear organized truck convoys to deliver food, supplies and fuel to the Big Bear area, said Caltrans spokeswoman Terri Kasinga.

Caltrans, the California Highway Patrol and the Sheriff's Department helped lead the convoys up state Route 38 "to help the mountain communities following last week's heavy snowstorm," Kasinga said in a statement.

The roads had been closed to visitors since Sunday due to poor road conditions, short fuel and limited food supplies in the resort towns, said Third District Supervisor Neil Derry.

"The temporary closures are lifted as of 6 p.m.," Derry said in a telephone interview. "The roads are open to both residents and visitors."

Chain restrictions apply on the re-opened roads until further notice.

The open roads to Bear Valley included state Routes 18 and 38, though the 38 from Mentone was the only route open to buses and trucks, according to Kasinga.

"The Arctic Circle on the 18 was clear and the roads looked good," Derry said this evening after a helicopter flight with the Sheriff's Department to assess the situation. "We have another storm on the way tomorrow with 6 inches to 8 inches of more snow possible. So it's an ongoing maintenance concern, as it is whenever it snows."

Some residents were snowed in during the storms last week and some visitors were stranded without gas to get back down the mountain, Derry said.

"We did have times when the roads weren't safe," Derry said. "We did escort some supply trucks in today, primarily food and fuel."

"We did have some slides, and we had 30 to 40 vehicles stuck on the Arctic Circle at one point last week," Derry said. "The drivers had to be rescued with snowcats. We had people snowed in under five feet. They couldn't get out of their homes."

Earlier today, a pair of big rig trucks hauling tankers and other large supply trucks were lined up at a CHP road block at Bryant Street waiting for clearance to head up to Bear Valley via state Route 38.

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MILL CREEK CANYON - Access to Bear Valley and some of the Southland's most popular ski resorts remained temporarily closed to visitors this afternoon due to poor road conditions, short fuel and limited food supplies in the resort towns.

The situation was likely to be updated later today, as local and state officials held conference call discussions on the closure, which was announced Sunday.

Last week's snows have been plowed off most primary roads but more snow may be coming Tuesday and Tuesday night, according to the National Weather Service.

Visitors were being allowed up to the Running Springs, Crestline and Lake Arrowhead communities in the west San Bernardino Mountains, California Highway Patrol dispatchers in Running Springs said this afternoon in phone interviews.

Further east at the resorts above Big Bear Lake, the roads were closed to visitors, the Running Springs dispatchers said.



A pair of big rig trucks hauling tankers and other large supply trucks were lined up this morning at a CHP road block at Bryant Street waiting for clearance to head up to Bear Valley via state Route 38.

County and sheriff's officials were planning helicopter flights this afternoon to assess the situation, Lt. Dale Gregory said in an interview at the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Aviation Bureau at Rialto Airport.

The concern is for residents as well as visitors stranded without fuel, Gregory said.

"They've been doing rescues at some homes with snowmobiles is my understanding," Gregory said, speaking in the lobby at the aviation bureau. Other flight crews were involved in rescues at lower elevations this morning, and a pilot checked in with Gregory before departing to the scene of crash involving a motor officer.

"It's been a busy week," Gregory said. "It's Southern California. Sometimes we get rain and snow and people freak out."



Meanwhile, the heavy precipitation last week has turned brown parts of the Inland Empire an emerald green more typically seen in Ireland. Pictured here is Mentone with San Bernardino Peak in the distance. Even parts of Moreno Valley - which translates literally to "brown" valley - and the Badlands between San Timoteo Canyon and the San Gorgonio Pass were sporting a lush green cover.

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

veteran voices


Slopes above La CaƱada and La Crescenta this morning

By Guy McCarthy

A fire captain and a coroner's investigator who responded to two deadly post-fire erosion disasters on Christmas Day 2003 have words of advice for residents of more than 750 foothill homes under evacuation orders today.

"Listen to the officials," San Bernardino Fire Department Capt. Vinson Gates said in a recent telephone interview.

"It's mud, rocks, boulders, trees and debris," Gates said. "Me myself, I've seen a lot of people die behind that. I would leave, me and my family, that's what I would do. I've seen it destroy two campgrounds, so I can imagine what it would do to homes."

Sixteen people -- including nine children -- died on Dec. 25 2003 in two different boulder-laden flash floods in canyons above San Bernardino.

Gabriel Morales, a supervising deputy coroner's investigator for San Bernardino County, also advised Los Angeles-area foothill residents to obey evacuation orders.

"I was out there Christmas Day, we had five members of a coroner's recovery team," Morales said in a telephone interview. "Both the KOA and Camp Sophia. It was a tragic event.

"These events are deadly," Morales said. "If law enforcement are advising get out, absolutely do so because it will save your life."

It took days to find most of the victims, and the last was recovered four months later miles downstream, Morales said.

"It was terrible, to see small children killed like that," Morales said. "I know a lot of rescue workers had problems with it."

Some victims were entombed and suffocated in the debris flows, according to coroner's reports.

"Because of the pressure forces involved, some died of blunt force injuries," Morales said. "It was awful."

The events occurred about 10 miles apart below mountain watersheds denuded by the October 2003 Old Fire, which destroyed a thousand homes and contributed to six deaths.

Christmas 2003 was the Southland's most recent reminder that post-fire erosion events can be deadlier than the firestorms that precede them.

In February 1978, a post-fire debris flow killed 13 people in the community of Hidden Springs, above Big Tujunga Canyon in the Angeles National Forest.

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fourth storm


Arroyo Seco from Devil's Gate Dam this morning

By Guy McCarthy

With more rain expected today on saturated, fire-denuded mountainsides, the U.S. Geological Survey and other officials warned evacuated residents to stay out of foothill homes below the Station Fire footprint.

"Based on all the rain we've had this week, if we get showers of any intensity there's still a chance of debris flows from the Station burn areas," Oxnard-based National Weather Service meteorologist Curt Kaplan said this morning.

"We do have potential for 2 to 4 more inches of rain in the mountains today," Kaplan said. "With a fast-moving thunderstorm, it may not take much to get things mobilized."

Evacuation orders issued to residents of more than 750 homes in the foothills remained in effect today, County Fire Inspector Matt Levesque and LAPD Officer Bruce Butterfield said in telephone interviews.

The evacuated areas of Little Tujunga, La Crescenta, La Canada and Glendale are in county and city jurisdictions.

Earlier this week, debris flows 8 feet to 12 feet high destroyed USGS monitoring equipment in Dunsmore Canyon and an unnamed tributary of Big Tujunga Canyon, USGS scientists in Pasadena said in a warning statement.

In the statement, titled "Southern California residents urged to heed evacuation orders as rain continues," USGS debris flow specialist Susan Cannon evoked two of the deadliest storms in recent Southern California history.

"The forecast rainfall for the next 48 hours is comparable to that which occurred during a 1969 storm that triggered landslides, debris flows and floods throughout Southern California, resulting in the deaths of 34 people," Cannon said.

"Because the hills above Glendora had been burned the previous fall, that area was particularly hard hit during the 1969 storm," Cannon said.

The storm forecast through today is also similar to the Christmas Day storm of 2003, which triggered debris flows from nearly every watershed burned by the Old and Grand Prix fires in the San Bernardino mountains, resulting in widespread destruction and the deaths of 16 people, the USGS stated.

The warnings might seem like overkill to evacuation-weary foothill residents.

But an aging flood-control system of debris basins and channels offers only partial protection below the burned areas, according to the county Department of Public Works.

Slope failures and debris flows are possible in some cases up to 72 hours after rains on burned areas, according to the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

"In Southern California, debris flows and floods have over history killed a comparable number of people as earthquakes," said USGS seismologist Lucy Jones. "These past deadly debris flows highlight that residents should not be complacent, and those with evacuation orders need to leave."

When Cannon evoked the post-fire storms' impact on Glendora 40 years ago, she was referring in part to two separate fires that denuded slopes above the community in July and August 1968, according to U.S. Forest Service records.

"The rainy season of 1968-69 provided a severe test to the disaster prevention facilities protecting Glendora," USFS researcher J.M. Rice wrote. The 1968 fires "denuded the slopes along 5 kilometers of the northern boundary of the city."

Subsequent debris flows during heavy rains in January 1969 destroyed six houses and damaged an additional 200 homes, according to Rice.

Glendora's vulnerability to post-fire and normal erosion stemmed from the fact that "immigrants to the San Gabriel Valley, where Glendora is located, failed to recognize the potential debris flow hazard to settlements on the debris cone," Rice said.

"They had little experience with mountains as precipitous as the San Gabriels north of Glendora. And they were probably unaware of the effects of intermittent brushfires that denuded the mountains of vegetation. Damages that resulted from the settlers' lack of foresight were modest until 1969."

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

storm basins

video
Devil's Gate on Monday around 1 p.m.

By Guy McCarthy

Devil's Gate Dam on the Arroyo Seco is in no danger of overflowing, officials say, in part because it has adequate means of letting water out as the wetland behind it fills with black soup and debris from the Station Fire.

That is not the case with some of the smaller debris basins across the foothills below recent burned areas.

The 29 debris basins intended to protect residents from erosion disasters are facing a severe test this week, and at least one of them is of particular concern as more storms bear down today on the Southland.

Mullally Basin at the end of Manistee Drive just east of Ocean View Boulevard in La Canada Flintridge is considered undersized for the current post-fire conditions, according to Los Angeles County and U.S. Forest Service records, and it has overflowed at least twice since the massive Station Fire denuded 250 square miles of mountain watersheds.

The basin overflowed early Nov. 13 during a sudden deluge from an "uncharted" storm cell, sending mud and debris flowing down parts of Ocean View Boulevard. It overflowed again Monday, contributing to the need for temporary evacuation of more than 60 homes in the Paradise Valley area.

Enlargement of Mullally Basin has been in the planning stages for several years, according to the county Department of Public Works.

Several alternatives for enlarging Mullally Basin were discussed during an October 2008 community meeting, according to county records.

About a year later, while the Station Fire was still smoldering, a Sept. 22 Burned Area Emergency Response report from the U.S. Forest Service stated, "Mullally Canyon Debris Basin was identified as being significantly undersized by L.A. County Public Works.

"If a large debris flow or flooding event occurs, the release is onto Ocean View Blvd., which runs to Foothill Boulevard," a main thoroughfare, the Forest Service stated. "Downstream residences need to heed triggers and warnings established by the National Weather Service."

In September, the Forest Service listed Mullally's capacity at 9,400 cubic yards and estimated the post-fire annual yield at 19,896 cubic yards. The post-fire estimate may already have been exceeded since Nov. 13.

In addition to Mullally Basin, six other basins are considered undersized and are slated for expansion to increase their storage capacities, but implementing those plans is not scheduled to begin until April, according to a public works report delivered to county supervisors in December.

The $5 million project to expand Big Briar, Mullally, Snover, Pickens, Starfall, Pinelawn and Rowley basins was detailed in a Station Fire disaster recovery report delivered to the county board of supervisors by Director of Public Works Gail Farber.

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Saturday, January 9, 2010

human skulls


Investigators comb burned gulch the day after Christmas

By Guy McCarthy

Two skulls discovered Dec. 24 and Dec. 26 in a mountain gully scorched by the Station Fire belonged to a man and a woman, respectively, a coroner's investigator said today.

The first skull, found Christmas Eve by hikers in a draw below the Angeles Forest (N3) Highway, had an apparent bullet hole in it, a sheriff's homicide lieutenant said.

The skull with the hole in it is now considered evidence in the death of John Doe #225, said Coroner's Investigator Jerry McKibben.

The second skull, discovered two days later by a team of investigators searching the same area, had signs of trauma, said Steve Whitmore, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

The second skull is now considered evidence in the death of Jane Doe #87, McKibben said.

The gender of each set of remains was determined by examination of other bones collected in the steep, fire-denuded gulch two weeks ago, McKibben said.

This is the first disclosure of gender identification in a mystery the Los Angeles Times described recently as a "jigsaw puzzle."

Both cases appeared to be homicides but no conclusions had been reached, Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter told The Times last week.

Early today, the cause of death in both cases was listed as "deferred," McKibben said.

"We're still working it," McKibben said. "I'm sure homicide is still investigating."

The gully where the skulls were found is near mile marker 19.36 of the Angeles Forest Highway, above the Big Tujunga Dam. The draw feeds into the Lucas Creek drainage, which in turn feeds Big Tujunga Canyon above the dam.

The remains were found about 100 feet below the Angeles Forest Highway.

Before the Station Fire burned 250 square miles of the San Gabriel Mountains in August and September, Lucas Creek and Big Tujunga Canyon were popular with hikers.

Though the backcountry burned areas are now termed off-limits by the Forest Service, some people still go.

On Christmas Eve, deputies from the Crescenta Valley Sheriff's Station responded to the site when hikers found the skull with the apparent bullet hole, said Lt. Paul Becker of the Homicide Bureau.

On Dec. 26 -- two weeks ago today -- about a dozen forensic specialists, coroner's investigators and homicide detectives returned to dig and sift through dirt, rocks and debris in the gully.

Using soft-bristle, wood-handled brushes to excavate, and metal, wood-framed screens to sift through material, as well as one dog trained at sniffing out human remains, they found the second skull close to where the first was located.

"We don't know if this is a murder, a suicide or accidental," Becker said that day. "Obviously that is the focus of this investigation."

At least one of the skulls appeared to pre-date the fire, McKibben said.

"Apparently it's part of the burn area, but it sounds like the bones are pre-fire," McKibben said. "Just from the condition of the skull, it sounds like it was skeletonized before the fire."

The John Doe and Jane Doe numbers assigned to the two sets of remains indicate the first skull was the 225th unidentified male case worked by the Los Angeles County coroner in 2009, and the second skull was the county's 87th unidentified female case of the year, McKibben said.

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Photo copyright by Guy McCarthy. All rights reserved.
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