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Mudslide Continues to Creep Toward La Conchita Homes

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

An avalanche of rock and mud continued to inch down a hillside here Tuesday while residents scurried to retrieve their belongings from threatened homes and emergency crews braced for the onslaught of storms building on the horizon.

Soil engineers will focus today on draining a 40-foot-wide pond of rainwater 300 feet up the slope. They want to unplug the pool before storms expected to hit as early as this evening add more runoff and weight to the soggy, unstable hillside.

“If we could get rid of the water, it would improve the stability of the hillside,” said Jim Fisher, a consulting geologist.

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Saturday’s mudslide crushed nine dwellings in the seaside community north of Ventura. Unless crews can reduce the weight and stress on the hillside, the 600,000-ton slide could continue into La Conchita, destroying homes in its path.

Geologists also worry about fissures in an adjacent sage-covered hillside that could trigger an even larger slide than the one Saturday.

Meanwhile, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors declared La Conchita a local disaster area Tuesday, opening the way for affected residents to apply for disaster assistance. In all, seven houses and two mobile homes were buried or damaged beneath the tons of soil and debris.

Residents have been evacuated from about 75 other houses directly below the unstable hillside. Access to those streets has been restricted.

With a half-dozen sheriff’s deputies and firefighters watching the hillside Tuesday, Claude Martin of Sherman Oaks worked steadily through the morning to clear mud from the base of three small trailers that have been his family vacation retreat for a quarter of a century.

Caked in waist-high mud, 90-year-old Martin disconnected the water and utility lines to the trailers that sit at the edge of the slide. County firefighters and road crews used a skip-loader to dig out a trailer’s hitch, then towed it to an open lot farther from the mountain.

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“We sure hate to see it go, but it’s got to go,” Martin said.

Many residents believe that the landslide was triggered, in part, by irrigation of avocado and citrus trees in the groves on the hillside above La Conchita. But geologists found otherwise in a 1993 study paid for by citrus and avocado ranch owners.

“They concluded that the hillside was basically dry until they got very deep and that meant the water had to have been coming from someplace other than the ranch,” Fisher said.

At a briefing Monday, county officials told residents to prepare to abandon their homes for months until the hillside stabilizes. Some residents said they believe that there will never again be homes on Vista Del Rincon Drive, the road at the base of the mountain.

“When they threw out the term months, I really don’t think that has registered with us,” said Dorothy Bonenberger, a six-year La Conchita resident who is living temporarily with her husband and Jack Russell terrier at a Carpinteria motel.

“We stood here last Saturday and watched that whole thing come down. Nothing they had told us . . . prepared us for what we were seeing,” she said.

Like many of her neighbors, Bonenberger said she is anxious to see what happens in the next round of storms. On Tuesday, she returned to her home briefly to retrieve unpaid bills and clothes.

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Looking up Fillmore Street at her home--now surrounded by sandbags--Bonenberger said she felt a kinship with Malibu residents displaced by wildfires and mudslides.

“They get buried, they’re out for X number of months, and they go back and build,” she said, “because they enjoy living there.”

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