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Fire road is no match for nature and machines

Fire road is no match for nature and machines
This rut on the Mt. Lukens fire road is two feet deep and four feet wide and once a vehicle has cautiously made it past here, it has to find its way round a collapsed part the roadbed, marked by cones, next to a 20-foot drop. (Courtesy of Reg Green)

Even the first rains have deepened the ruts — you might call them ravines — in places on the fire road to Mt. Lukens. Another storm could make the road impassable. The mountain, amazingly, is part of Los Angeles, giving the city the distinction of having the widest difference in elevation of any big city in the U.S., from sea level to 5,074 feet.

For most of the day — for most of the year — the road, which goes up and up through the rugged Angeles National Forest, is completely empty. A handful of mountain bikers or, even rarer, hikers toil up it for views of the whole Los Angeles basin. The firefighters at the forest fire station on Angeles Crest Highway jog along it and make sure it stays open.

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For almost everyone else in Southern California it is totally unknown. Yet nearly every one of them uses it in some way. That's because on top of Mt. Lukens there is a small forest of transmission towers that handle the needs of everyone from first responders and emergency rooms to television and radio listeners.

As the number and importance of the towers have increased, the road has been severely tested. Maintenance trucks, some loaded with heavy equipment, stress it in ways its builders never envisioned. Each may come only every few weeks, or even months, but each takes away some of the surface, which though solid rock for much of the way is also soft earth in places.

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Before last year's winter, the authorities tried valiantly to plug the deepest ditches. I watched on my daily hikes as impressive equipment filled in the deepest holes with soil and, in some of the worst parts, sections of tree trunks, and then pounded everything down to make a solid compact surface that the heaviest vehicle could drive on with ease.

The first rains came and washed most of it away. By the time the 2017 winter was over, the ruts were deeper than ever, only the tree trunks having resisted the powerful flows that sprang up in every channel. Now it is as pitted as I can remember, admittedly quite serviceable for almost all the way, but every now and then hazardous enough to test even the strongest nerves. One monster, only a couple of hundred yards from the trailhead, is like an elongated bathtub, 30 feet long and in one place 3 feet deep and 3 feet across. In heavy storms it looks like a water chute.

I think most of us are rooting for a wet winter but to others who dread it — like those who have to clear up the mudslides or who live on vulnerable hillsides — we should probably add the driver who keeps our cellphones working.

Reg Green is a La Cañada Flintridge resident. He can be reached via www.nicholasgreen.org

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