Rain Douses Threat of Brush Fires

Times Staff Writers

A rare October storm dumped as much as 3 inches of rain in the Los Angeles Basin on Wednesday, flooding roads and causing at least one death but also raising hopes that Southern California would avoid another disastrous brush fire season.

The Pacific storm, which made this the wettest October in 115 years in downtown Los Angeles, was a relief to firefighters and forest rangers who had feared that bone-dry conditions in mountains and canyons would lead to major brush fires.

A smaller storm Sunday brought the first significant rain to the region in 180 days, and the latest downpour did much to saturate the hillside areas and add moisture to the brush and trees, officials said. The storm produced five 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 U.S. Forest Service Battalion Chief Bruce Risher. "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 this month and in early November would raise the fire risk again, but they doubted that would happen.

"We have absolutely zero fire danger right now," said Ron Hamilton, head meteorologist for the 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 Wednesday reopened large swaths of the Cleveland, San Bernardino and Angeles national forests that had been closed for months because of the fire danger. The Forest Service could soon begin to relieve extra staffing levels maintained for the wildfire danger, such as hand crews, Risher said.

"We could still see Santa Ana winds, but now I expect there would be enough moisture in the soils that we wouldn't have the problems we had last year," said Ruth Wenstrom, a spokeswoman for the San Bernardino National Forest, referring to the Southern California brush fires last year that killed 24 people, destroyed 3,361 homes and burned 739,597 acres.

Weather forecasters expect another storm to hit this weekend or early next week. They said neither that storm nor the one Wednesday was tied to an El Nino weather phenomenon, a warming of tropical waters in the Pacific Ocean that has caused heavy rains in California in the past. But some meteorologists believe El Nino will return this winter in a mild form.

This week's precipitation will help plants take root and will accelerate the growth of more vegetation, making hillsides less vulnerable to fire and mudslides, said Albert Williams, a Los Angeles County firefighter.

But continued heavy rains -- especially in areas burned by brush fires last October and over the summer -- could cause flash flooding and mudslides. A flash flood took the life of a security guard early Wednesday at the Wildlife Waystation in the mountains of the Angeles National Forest, officials said.

Alex Levin, 19, of Tehachapi was patrolling the 160-acre wild animal refuge in a pickup truck when a 5- to 8-foot wall of water hit as he attempted to drive across Buck Creek, operations manager A.J. Durtschi said.

The guard had last radioed the security office about 1 a.m.

"He said there's a lot of mud. Those were his last words," Durtschi said.

Capt. Mark Savage of the Los Angeles County Fire Department said the man's body was found under a wooden bridge about 1 1/2 miles downstream in the Little Tujunga Canyon wash.

Water overwhelmed a San Bernardino County flood-control culvert early Wednesday morning, creating "washout" conditions on train tracks and causing two cars of a Union Pacific train to derail in Fontana.

Hazardous materials teams were called to the scene because one of the tipped cars was a tanker carrying 17,000 gallons of chlorine, said Joe Ashbaker, San Bernardino County Fire Department environmental health specialist.

Two pipelines carrying fuel were shut down at 9:30 a.m. in Fontana because of the derailment as well as the erosion caused by rain. The lines bring fuel from Los Angeles-area refineries to a terminal in Colton. Then it is sent to Barstow and Las Vegas or Imperial County and Phoenix.

Bob van der Valk, a fuel manager with Santa Fe-based Cosby Oil Co., said that if the pipes weren't reopened within a few days, it would create a gasoline shortage that could bring higher pump prices in parts of the Southwest.

The downpour also flooded tracks in San Bernardino County and Pomona Valley, forcing Metrolink to cancel a dozen commuter trains during the morning rush.

In Devore, residents of 20 homes on Greenwood Avenue were unable to leave for work and school by car when a deluge of mud and rocks careened down their steep street. Flash floods in the same area last December killed two people at a nearby campsite.

"There's nothing to do but stay in the house; you go outside and all that happens is you get really wet," said Sheila Bell, who has lived on the street since 1983. "I guess I'll just go back to sleep."

Residents in the Lytle Creek area of San Bernardino County also were blocked when part of Lytle Creek Road was submerged by 4 feet of water.

"There's only one way in and one way out," said California Highway Patrol Officer Rich Geller, who was turning away residents trying to get home. "They ask about alternate routes, and there are none. Even the forest roads are washed out."

Heavy fog caused a chain-reaction accident involving more than 40 cars and big rigs in the Cajon Pass on Wednesday afternoon, injuring several people.

So far this month, downtown Los Angeles has recorded 2.93 inches of rain, enough to flood some streets and down a few trees across the city.

In San Diego County, the rain was blamed for dozens of traffic accidents. A recruiting effort by Halliburton Corp. to find San Diegans willing to work in Iraq and Afghanistan was shortened because of snarled traffic.

In Anaheim, a roof collapsed at an apartment complex about 6:30 a.m.

For emergency workers, the improvement in fire conditions was tempered by the prospect of rain-related problems.

"As far as the fire danger, we're greatly relieved because of the sheer amount of rain," said Battalion Chief Risher. "Of course, now we have a reversal from fire danger to flood danger. We've really gone 180 degrees."

Times staff writers Wendy Thermos, Caitlin Liu, H.G. Reza, Sandra Murillo, Mai Tran, Seema Mehta, Tony Perry and Fred Alvarez contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Water hazards

The rainiest October day in Los Angeles since 1934 caused problems throughout the Southland. Here's a look at some of the incidents reported to authorities.

Los Angeles County

A Wildlife Waystation security guard apparently drowned when his truck was swept off Little Tujunga Canyon Road into Buck Creek.

Swift-water rescue teams were mobilized from Burbank to the mouth of the Los Angeles River after a report of a man in the water.

Metrolink lines connecting downtown Los Angeles to Riverside County and San Bernardino counties were shut down for part of the morning commute.

San Bernardino County

More than 20 vehicles were involved in a chain-reaction accident due to heavy fog.

Parts of routes 173 and 18 were closed to traffic throughout the day.

One Union Pacific car carrying chlorine and another loaded with lumber tipped on washed-out tracks.

Riverside County

Flooding forced evacuation of Elsinore High School.

Orange County

Flooding closed 19 parks, including Mile Square Regional Park and Laguna Niguel Regional Park.

The Orange Crush interchange, at I-5 and routes 22 and 57, was closed for seven hours.

A section of roof collapsed at a Staples store in Fullerton.

Sections of at least four roofs collapsed at businesses in Santa Ana.

Note: Total rainfall in inches for 24-hour period ending at 4 p.m. Wednesday

Sources: Los Angeles Times reports; USGS

Graphics reporting by Cheryl Brownstein-Santiago, Seema Mehta, Mark Phillips, Wendy Thermos, Mai Tran

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