Valley News -

By Jeff Pack

Heavy rains put Holy Fire burn scar flood prevention measures to test


Last updated 12/6/2018 at 11:14pm

Marc Danielian

Crews work to clear mud and debris from the roadway in front of a Lake Elsinore home that suffered minor mudslide damage in the garage during heavy rains Thursday, Nov. 29.

In August, when the Holy Fire was still just a day old, the city of Lake Elsinore began planning for a day when rains would pour down on burn scarred hills looming to the west of the city.

Those plans were put to the test Thursday, Nov. 29, when the region received its first real winter storm of the season, dropping between 0.20 and 0.40 inches of rain per hour and prompting flash flood warnings from the National Weather Service and mandatory evacuations ordered by the Riverside County Emergency Management Department, Wednesday afternoon.

According to reports from news organizations and local officials, the majority of flood mitigation plans put in place seemed to hold up during the storm.

Lake Elsinore Mayor Natasha Johnson was broadcasting live on Facebook periodically throughout the day, giving residents updates on how the city's plan was holding up.

She showed images of the Rice Canyon area where dirt berms were installed to guide debris flows coming off the mountain and canyons.

Johnson said on her Facebook page that "there have been impact to some roadways, and there is definitely some cleanup that needs to take place. Many clogged drains and debris remains. Most importantly no loss of life or structural loss."

Speaking from her home, which is in the high risk flood zone area of Lake Elsinore Sunday evening, Johnson reiterated that she feels fortunate but not safe.

"I think it was best case scenario. It could have been a lot worse and we are extremely fortunate, and as you can see the limited impact we had was because of how seriously we took in preparation of this," she said. "Standing out in those areas yesterday that were most threatened, I had this realization that had we not built that berm and spent the time mitigating what could happen, the homes at the bottom of that canyon would likely not be here.

"It sounds cliche, but I keep feeling this sense that we have been dodging a bullet. The Holy Fire was incredibly aggressive, and we were able to suppress that fire without sustaining much damage. But this is a little more concerning to be honest, because there's only so much you can do to prepare for floods," Johnson said.

There were reports of mud sliding into a resident's garage, but mitigation teams were quick to remove the mud and put preventative measures in place to protect the residence further.

Cal Fire Riverside said they rescued a 90-year-old man in the Rice Canyon area with the use of the National Guard vehicle but that seemed to be the only reported need for rescue during the rain event.

Reports indicated that roughly 50 percent of residents located in the mandatory evacuation zones of Amorose, Alberhill, Glen Ivy A, Glen Eden, Grace, Horsethief A, Laguna A, Matri, McVicker A, Rice and Withrow A actually did evacuate, which was worrisome for first responders.

Cal Fire Riverside Scott Visyak told KCAL9 that first responders were frustrated that more residents didn't heed the evacuation orders.

"Instead of worrying about the debris flow and the mud and the water runoff, now we have to worry about residents that didn't follow the orders," he said.

When the evacuation orders were announced, first responders were out going door to door informing residents, and a care and reception center was opened at Temescal Canyon High School. Evacuees' large and small animals could be dropped off at Temescal Canyon and at the San Jacinto Valley Animal Campus in San Jacinto.

The Lake Elsinore Unified School District shuttered Luiseno Elementary School, Rice Canyon Elementary School, Withrow Elementary School, Terra Cotta Middle School and Lakeside High School, Thursday; they are all schools which are situated in or near mandatory evacuation zones. Luiseno, Rice Canyon, Terra Cotta and Withrow remained closed Friday, but Lakeside High and all other LEUSD campuses were open Friday.

By 6:30 a.m. Friday, all evacuation orders were lifted for the Holy Fire burn area, but some roads remained closed in spots because of localized flooding or debris.

Another storm was expected to hit the Lake Elsinore region Wednesday and Thursday with a 90 percent chance of precipitation.

"My concern is the saturation of the ground now," Johnson said. "I think we've proven we can handle the capacity (of debris flow), but how many new storms, back to back to back can we sustain successfully?"

Johnson said she has heard from folks on both sides of the issue regarding evacuations.

"I understand from a resident's perspective the inconvenience and the frustration, but I am not willing to gamble with life safety," she said. "My message would be this, as the mayor, none of us will apologize for putting life safety first. I can only hope and pray that we are overreacting and over-preparing. Being desensitized to this storm threat is my biggest concern right now."

City News Service contributed to this report.

Jeff Pack can be reached at [email protected]


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