In San Bernardino mountains, residents fear more mudslides

For months, Oak Glen resident Meg Grant emailed local officials pleading that residents needed help preparing for the next rainstorm.

Rainstorms in December brought mud, branches and debris into their gardens, said Grant Dawn Rowe, the San Bernardino District Manager. Residents knew the risks of living in the mountains, Grant said, but the 2020 fire left them vulnerable to mudslides down Birch Creek, which flows through many of their properties.

The dreaded day came on September 12, when The remnants of Tropical Storm Kay brought 2.4 inches of rain in an hour and created an immense debris flow that damaged or destroyed 16 Houses. Car-sized boulders fell in Forest Falls, a small mountain community north of Oak Glen. A 62-year-old Forest Falls resident died when the torrent of rocks, sticks and mud inundated her home.

A group of rescuers search a destroyed house

Rescuers search through mud and debris for the body of a woman on September 13 in Forest Falls, California.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

That Seed of catastrophic mudslide – which inundated a county-run flood channel and buried some areas in 12 feet of mud – was planted two years ago when the El Dorado fire burned 22,680 acres on the Yucaipa Ridge, leaving a burn scar that left the mountain bare and prone to rapid erosion.

“They knew this was a problem,” said Grant, who grew frustrated when the district said it could do little to help residents fortify their homes.

In the mountains, residents recognize the risks and rewards they trade for living in remote areas. To the fresh mountain air and acres of forested land, they face wildfires, floods and debris flows.

But some residents in the unincorporated communities of Oak Glen and Forest Falls now feel particularly vulnerable. They are frustrated that San Bernardino County officials have told them that the county has limited public funds to protect private property and residents.

“It’s not like I’m asking the county to come and dig a pond for me,” said Brenda Ebrahim, who believes the county should set up a disaster fund to help residents. “I am asking for help to recover from a disaster not of my making.”

In Oak Glen, Birch Creek intersects the community. The county is responsible for maintaining part of the creek where it flows through a canal built in 1965 that was built to contain and channel the runoff, said Brendon Biggs, the county’s manager of public works.

Two people in a room with four feet of mud

Kylie Reykdal (left) and Alyssa Liu remove mud from the dining room at the Oak Glen Steak House and Saloon September 15 in Oak Glen, California.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

On Sept. 12, the county’s alert system and National Weather Service sent out alerts to residents, Biggs said. Around 3 p.m. it rained harder than expected, directly on the burn scar on the ridge between the two communities and unleashed a flood of mud, rocks and debris. K-Rail barriers were overwhelmed and debris plunged into Oak Glen Steakhouse & Saloon. A tree crashed into the main dining area. The restaurant, which was closed that day, was buried in mud at least two meters deep.

“Before the fire, the whole thing [flood control] The system worked well,” said Biggs. “The slopes are very active now and are bringing in mud…. No system can really handle all of that.”

County officials claimed that under the law, they could not fund efforts to build or maintain their property.

Rowe said in a statement she will be “working hand-in-hand with residents” to secure state and federal funding. The County Board of Supervisors issued an emergency declaration to make it easier for disaster relief to get to affected communities.

But some residents thought the county should have done more – and still should, as winter approaches with more storms.

They pointed out the debris flow in January 2018 in Montecito which killed 23 people and destroyed 130 houses. That slide followed a wildfire that scorched mountains above the coastal community just weeks earlier. A Times investigation found that Santa Barbara County officials had failed to maintain the flood control system and construct larger debris basins that could have reduced the destruction caused by the mudslide.

Although the latest debris flow was not nearly as catastrophic, some local residents remain concerned that there is still plenty of loose debris that could come down in another storm.

Meg Grant stands near a breached flood channel

Meg Grant stands near a ruptured flood channel in Oak Glen on September 15.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

It could have been a lot worse. Grant’s driveway and yard disappeared under a layer of mud and large rocks, and mud seeped into her house in a few rooms. But she avoided significant structural damage. Next door, Ebrahim’s home was untouched, but the debris covered much of their property and blasted the doors of their barn.

Ebrahim, who lived on Potato Canyon Road for 13 years with her family, said it will cost tens of thousands of dollars to replace her barn and fences and remove the debris. She said the county told her to clean up the creek bed, which is part of her property, and put up barriers, which she has tried. But they are no match for the onslaught of debris.

“We’ve been begging for years since they told us this was going to happen,” Ebrahim said. “I’ve been through it, I know how it works. It’s not sustainable. This is California’s new reality.”

It takes an emotional toll. Ebrahim recalled marching to Potato Canyon Road hours after the mudslide and getting her horses, Almond Joy and Charlie, stuck in the mud, their legs completely covered and bruised by the debris. As the sunlight faded, she agonized as she was forced to leave them for the night, without food or water. Only the next morning did she manage to dig them up with the help of another neighbor.

A woman stands next to a Postbus

Brenda Ebrahim collects her mail from a carrier after heavy rains destroy mailboxes or make them inaccessible on Potato Canyon Road.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

On a Thursday afternoon, Ebrahim watched as the postman stopped and searched for her washed-away mailbox. she stopped him and got her mail.

“Good luck,” he told her. “You’d think the county would do something.”

“No, they won’t help us. We already figured that out,” she said.

“It’s a shame,” he said.

Longtime resident Jim Wolfe’s home and grounds sit on Birch Creek and across the county-maintained canal. Given its precarious location, the county placed K-rails along its property to protect it from runoff.

They protected his house from previous rainstorms. But on September 12, Wolfe watched from his car up the hill as wave after wave of mud and debris overwhelmed K rails, knocked his front door off its hinges and ripped down all but a support beam on his porch.

Inside, three days later, furniture remained buried, trapped in time. A K-rail was half hanging out the window buried in the mud in the house.

Wolfe said he believes the county did everything it could to protect his property. Nearby, dump trucks and skid steers roared and rattled as they cleared debris from the canal across the street.

“The county was great. They did a lot of preventive stuff,” Wolfe said. “It was just crazy this time.”

Mud fills a living room

Mud burst through front doors and windows of Jim Wolfe’s home in Oak Glen, California.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Across the ridge in Forest Falls, where the El Dorado fire burned to the outskirts of town, residents are well acquainted with the unpredictability of nature’s blows.

When it started to rain, Zachary Roop and his girlfriend were at home on Prospect Drive enjoying the soothing sound of the rain. He heard a loud noise. Roop went to check it out, wondering if he needed to rearrange the sandbags he had placed outside the house.

He watched through his window as a wall of mud hurtled toward them, carrying truck-sized boulders “like a rubber ducky on a pond.”

He tried to run back to his bedroom and found his cave gone. He and his girlfriend managed to escape and stayed with a neighbor; but his house for the last 15 years, which he built by hand with his father, was destroyed.

He wondered if more fortifications like a stone wall or more resources for residents could have helped maintain the washing facilities that ran along his property.

“I don’t know what the right answer is,” he said.

Doris Jagiello’s body lay across the street found buried at her home on September 15, authorities said. one of their dogs survived.

Other parts of Prospect Drive, such as Gabriel Valencia’s home, were left untouched. But years ago, Valencia and his wife were badly hit by a mudslide that inundated their garden and destroyed its fence. He said the situation was made worse by a configuration of county-maintained storm drains — one that actually directed the runoff onto his property, and one downstream that didn’t drain it nearly as quickly.

A row of mud-encrusted alcohol bottles

Alcohol bottles are caked in mud at the Oak Glen Steak House and Saloon.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Valencia spent more than $50,000 on repairs and construction, he said, including building a 2-foot-thick building stone wall around his property. Still, he worries about the gully.

Like other residents, Valencia recognizes the homeowners’ responsibility of living in the mountains. But he’s also hoping to get support from the county to better maintain the downstream steel pipe to try to keep future waves of mud and debris away from his home.

He looks forward to the vegetation growing back on the ridge and a return to a sense of normalcy.

“A lot of us feel like this is only once in a lifetime. My house may be compromised, but I want to stay,” Valencia said.

Now homeless, Roop said he and his girlfriend, along with their cat Tilly, are trying to figure out what’s next. They didn’t qualify for housing credits, he said, and he’d run out of funds for a motel.

Roop said he was grateful to the neighbors who helped look for their cat and struggled to clear his driveway. Although the county has cleared the streets, it is not clearing any private property.

Nicole and Avery Duncan, longtime residents of Forest Falls, sat outside their home on a Monday afternoon and watched the county’s orange dump trucks drive by as they cleared debris from the roadway.

Nicole said that after the district was complete, they planned to take their backhoe and skid steer loader and try to clear the driveways for neighbors, including Roop, whose homes were inundated by the mud.

“That’s what we do for each other up here,” Nicole said. In San Bernardino mountains, residents fear more mudslides

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