Forest Falls: After severe flash flood, mountain town digs out

Tiny mountain town of Forest Falls digs out after flash flood that sounded like 'freight train'

Amid the smell of wet dirt and piles of heavy gray runoff, the town of Forest Falls dug out Monday after what residents called one of the worst flash floods in the last 20 years.

Throughout the day, residents shoveled and dug all along the several miles of the main mountain road that serves this small community of 1,000 in the San Bernardino National Forest, as county trucks and firefighters brought in heavy equipment to clear roads.

At the 75-year-old Forest Home Christian Camp, a campground and conference center, organizer Stephanie Guida and volunteers dug cars out of the muddy lot. Three of the campsites were closed after Sunday's floods, while two other campsites were still operating with summer campers.

Guida was confident the camp could reopen fully in time to finish out the summer season. The camp reported no injuries and no major structural damage, and was able to send campers on the flooded campsites home safely.

Now, she said, it was time to dig out.

"We have all hands on deck. We have staff no matter what their role is willing to grab shovels," Guida said.

The camp will ask for volunteers to assist with the cleanup, she added.

Doug Roath didn't fare as well yesterday. When the flood carried dirt and sediment down the mountain valleys into Forest Falls, his house stood in its path.

After a half-hour of rain and "a freight train" roar, the flood crested and headed for Roath's home. Knowing the flood was coming, he ushered a family of nearby hikers to high ground and watched as a wave of dirt, water and boulders poured onto his property, burying his trailer and submerging his doghouses, he said.

"It had us surrounded. These people had two little kids with them and asked if they were going to die," he said. "My doghouse with my dogs in it was just spinning in a whirlpool."

Roath and the hikers were able to get help from nearby firefighters. Now he's spending his days sifting through the sediment picking up belongings. Though not all is bad news -- his dogs survived, a group of community members are helping him dig out, and town residents have offered him financial help and housing.

"The story's really not about flash floods or the damage to my house," Roath said. "It's really about how people have come together. That's always been the way it is here."

Both Lindsey Foggett and Bob Middleton volunteered to dig through the slide to help Roath find his belongings. Both longtime residents, they said that there is always the certainty of another flood.

"We were watching the weather, and there was no question that within that three-day forecast, one of those days we were going to get nailed," he said. "There's nowhere in this canyon that is safe."

Foggett agreed, saying in the 22 years she has lived in the area, flash floods have become a fact of life.

"When I first moved here, people said floods were every 50 years. Now, they says it's every year. But still, I think you're safer here than out on the freeway."

Despite the risk, they say, the tight-knit community will rally.

"People stick together and they all pitch in," Foggett said. "People who don't even know each other have volunteered and are out digging."

matt.hansen2@latimes.com

Twitter: @mtthnsn

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