Damaging Rains Lift Fire Threat

Times Staff Writers

An unseasonable October rainstorm dumped 3 inches of rain in much of Orange County on Wednesday, buckling roofs, swamping freeways and sending a river of mud through a newly renovated elementary school in Yorba Linda.

The Orange Crush, the interchange where the Garden Grove, Santa Ana and Orange freeways meet, was closed during morning rush hour when it was flooded with 4 inches of water. The roof of a Staples office supply store in Fullerton split open under the weight of rainwater, sending employees running into a parking lot. And parks across the county were ordered closed through the week because of the soggy conditions.

The storm set record rainfall figures for the date in Fullerton, Costa Mesa and Santa Ana, where 3.11 inches was recorded --the highest figure in the county.

In Los Angeles County, a flash flood early Wednesday killed a security guard at the Wildlife Waystation in the Angeles National Forest. In Fontana, the effects of a swollen flood control channel caused two cars on a Union Pacific train to derail.

But the heavy rains were a relief to firefighters and forest rangers who had been bracing for a dangerous brush fire season because there had been so little rain this year, creating dry conditions in mountains and canyons.

A smaller storm Sunday dumped the first significant amount of rain on the region in 180 days, and the latest storm saturated hillsides and added moisture to the brush and trees, officials said. The storm brought 5 to 12 inches of rain in forest areas that are the most susceptible to fire.

"Things have taken a great change for the better," said Bruce Risher, U.S. Forest Service battalion chief. "We've gotten as much as 12 inches of rain in certain parts of our national forest. Our fire season is probably at an end."

Risher and others said several weeks of extremely hot and dry weather in October and early November would raise the fire risk again, but they were doubtful that will happen.

"We have absolutely zero fire danger right now," said Ron Hamilton, head meteorologist for the U.S. Forest Service at the Southern California Geographic Area Coordination Center in Riverside. "If you tried to start a fire with a match, it just can't be done. The fuels are just too wet."

In a sign of this optimism, forest officials on Wednesday reopened large swaths of the Cleveland, San Bernardino and Angeles national forests that had been closed for months because of fire danger. The Forest Service could soon begin to relieve extra staffing for the wildfire danger, Risher said.

The storm, however, brought little joy to a Yorba Linda neighborhood where parents were preparing to showcase their renovated grade school at an open house Wednesday night. Their plan changed radically when mud poured through classrooms during the predawn hours Wednesday.

Parents, teachers and administrators who were set to show off Mabel Paine Elementary School watched forlornly as cleaning crews squeezed out dirty water from carpets that still smelled new Tuesday. The school underwent a $3-million face-lift over the last year.

"This is our school. To see it like this is hard," said physical education teacher Steve Bowman, who has taught there for 17 years.

Placentia-Yorba Linda School District officials said water about a foot deep had rushed through the Plumosa Drive school, depositing mud, rocks and dozens of potted plants swept in from a nearby nursery. The damage was blamed on a clogged drain.

A district spokeswoman said two maintenance employees had spent the night trying to keep the drain clear. But they lost the battle at 4 a.m. and retreated toward the school, where they tried to save anything they could.

School has been canceled through the week there, and, starting Monday, students will be bused to temporary facilities at Esperanza High School.

The morning was a misery for commuters as Caltrans shut down stretches of freeways and city work crews closed roads.

All of the freeways were reopened at 12:30 p.m., seven hours after the first closures began.

Commuters who took surface streets fared better than those on freeways. Art Trottier, general manager at Disney Ice, and Charles Harris, the Mighty Ducks' publicity director at Arrowhead Pond, live in Irvine and work in Anaheim. It took Harris 45 minutes to get to work driving on surface streets. Trottier, who took a combination of freeways and surface streets, took an hour and 45 minutes to get to work.

The Staples in Fullerton was one of several buildings whose roofs collapsed under the weight of rainwater.

In Santa Ana, emergency workers rushed to collapsed roofs at four businesses. No injuries were reported. In Anaheim, six families were left homeless after the roof collapsed at their apartment complex in the 1700 block of Imperial Terrace at 6:30 a.m. The Red Cross provided the 12 adults and seven children with hotel rooms, food and clothing.

Nineteen parks, including Mile Square Regional Park in Fountain Valley and Laguna Niguel Regional Park, were ordered closed for up to three days due to flooding.

Jeremy Nelson, a meteorologist with Weather Central Inc., said that rain showers were expected throughout Southern California today, but that skies were expected be partly cloudy by later morning.

Contributing to this report were Times staff writers H.G. Reza, Lance Pugmire, Hector Becerra, Sandra Murrillo, Seema Mehta, Wendy Thermos, Tony Perry and Fred Alvarez.

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