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In Camarillo Springs, debris cleanup proceeds as next storm looms

Though some Camarillo Springs residents' homes were spared, damaging debris flows prove neighborhood's risk

On the day after Jim Shiraishi's home of 24 years was destroyed by a wall of mud and rocks that poured into his backyard in a burst of fury, all he could think about was finding his wallet and keys.

Shiraishi returned to his Camarillo Springs home over the weekend, after Friday's debris flow trapped him and his wife, Grace, both 89, and their caregiver inside. Firefighters broke down the front door and rescue them.

"I need my wallet and keys so I can get my car," said Shiraishi, pointing to the mud-stained garage door of his one-story home on San Como Lane.

His was one of 10 homes — seven on his street, three on another — that were red-tagged after a hill behind them collapsed, sending a torrent of mud, rocks and tree limbs into their yards and through their sliding glass doors. Piles of boulders, branches, pottery, old tires and furniture were strewn across their mud-covered yards. Garage doors were mangled and front windows blown out from their frames.

A few doors down from Shiraishi's, huge rocks filled a living room nearly to the ceiling.

Over the weekend, residents and work crews began the task of cleaning up after the storm — the strongest to hit Southern California after three years of drought — as they prepared for more rain to roll in this week, beginning Monday.

Under sunny skies Saturday, bulldozers and tractors rumbled up and down San Como Lane, moving dirt and debris as a steady stream of neighbors and homeowners surveyed the damage.

"It's very surreal," said Barbara Williams, president of the neighborhood homeowners association. "It's like a movie that's so fantastic, you wouldn't believe it."

The Camarillo Springs neighborhood sits at the base of the Santa Monica Mountains' northern edge, where several debris flows simultaneously spewed across Pacific Coast Highway about nine miles away, trapping at least seven people in their cars just after 2 a.m. Friday. The road was closed through the weekend between Las Posas and Yerba Buena roads.

Neighbors in the community, whose residents are 55 and older, said they had never had any problems until a May 2013 brush fire burned away vegetation that normally anchors the soil. On Halloween night this year, a debris flow destroyed one home on San Como Lane — and put everyone on notice that the hillside was vulnerable.

Since then, officials and homeowners worked to shore up the mountain through grading and installing K-rails and sediment barriers before the next storm hit.

But early Friday morning, San Como Lane turned into a churning river.

"It was like whitewater rapids down through here," said Phil Eads, of Murrieta, who owns a house that was red-tagged. He had gone to Camarillo Springs that night to look in on his renters. "It was awesome, in a bad way."

"It was a huge, gray mass," said Williams, who watched events unfold from a closed-circuit camera that officials installed to monitor the hillside.

Ted Elliott said he and his wife, Rita, and their golden retriever, Schatzi, returned home Friday after they spent the night at their daughter's home in the San Fernando Valley. Their home on San Marcos Lane — at the end of the line of five houses that were red-tagged — was spared.

"It was eerie last night, seeing the yellow police tape end at our house," Elliott said Saturday. "It's like living on an island."

Elliott said he's aware he may not be so lucky next time, especially with another storm headed to Southern California.

"There's nothing to do to stop it if it's going to happen," he said. "There's no point in fighting it."

When the rain began early Friday morning, only voluntary evacuations were in place, and Shiraishi and his wife were in bed.

"Before I could do anything, the bed was rising three feet," he said. "Then I heard a big crack. It was the sliding glass door."

Their caregiver was stuck on the bathroom counter as mud and rocks flew into the house.

"It was awful," Shiraishi said. "I knew it was going to rain, but no one told us there would be rocks."

As Shiraishi stood near his garage in scrubs and a jacket, someone handed him a wallet that had been recovered from underneath a bedroom dresser. He held it in his hands and smiled.

"Now I just need my keys," he said. "But who knows what shape my car's in."

amanda.covarrubias@latimes.com
Twitter: @amcovarrubias

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