When It Rains in L.A., It Pours at Opids Camp

Times Staff Writer

At the wettest place on record in Los Angeles County, a school camp perched 3,600 feet above Pasadena, the water has so saturated the ground that the landscape appears to be in constant motion.

Water rolls down the steep stairways, trails and green-tiled roofs. Even when the rains subside, the water continues to trickle relentlessly from the towering Douglas fir and oak trees. Every surface appears to be coated in a 2-inch layer of liquid -- not quite stagnant water, not quite snow, more like a clear 7-Eleven Slurpee.

During the worst of this week's deluge, lightning struck the telephone lines with such frequency that an electrical surge caused the camp's phones to ring throughout the night.

"I couldn't sleep," said Howard Fineman, the camp's principal. "I'm hypersensitive about turning off the phone, because parents might be calling asking about their children."

While the L.A. Basin below is struggling with more than 33 inches of rain in what could end up being the wettest rainy season on record, Opids Camp in the Angeles National Forest had recorded 107 inches as of Thursday morning.

Meteorologists and weather enthusiasts look at the "Opids Camp" marker on weather maps with a mixture of astonishment and curiosity.

"They get more rain and snow than anyone else," said William Patzert, a meteorologist at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "Among weather geeks, it's famous."

But for Fineman, his 34 employees and the fifth-graders from the Long Beach Unified School District who have made weeklong visits to the camp this season, the record precipitation has been more adventure than disaster.

The school district bought the facility in 1948 and uses it to teach students about biology, botany, zoology and ecology. Although the district renamed it Camp Hi-Hill, meteorologists and others interested in rainfall tallies still know it as Opids Camp.

Hiking has been canceled because many of the trails carry torrents of water. But the students still spend a lot of time outdoors. Creating a sea of bright yellow rain slickers, they make their way across the dark green landscape learning how to make rope, studying rocks and filtering water from a nearby stream.

Nathan Velasquez, 10, sat on a picnic bench this week bundled in a sweatshirt listening to his counselor describe to the class how their hands would eventually sting if they played with the snow for too long.

"I'm a little sick of being wet," Nathan said as droplets of water fell on him from the trees above.

A light snow that began to fall Tuesday evening enthralled the 160 children at the camp, most of whom had never seen such a sight. Many had prepared the best they could, layering T-shirts, track jackets and those yellow jackets.

"How often do we have to say, 'Get out of the mud, get out of the mud' at other places?" said Nora Campion, a teacher visiting from Willard Elementary School. "Here, we say, 'Go!' The boys just love the mud."

Frothy Bottleneck

Since the storms started, entering the camp has meant navigating two shallow but raging streams of icy-cold water that spill across the driveway and converge in a frothy bottleneck a foot deep before tumbling down a deep canyon.

The two dozen cabins cling to the steep hillside. The layout means that even in the heaviest downpours, there is little threat of flooding to the buildings because the water is channeled down the mountain. None of the mocha-colored wood cabins has suffered major flooding or leakage, though some lodgers have complained about ants looking for a dry sanctuary.

"It's ironic that we feel safer here, but the geology makes sense," said Fineman, 38. "Johnny Opid got it right."

Johnny Opid was a Forest Service employee who founded the camp with his father in 1910 as a resort for well-to-do visitors. He chose the site carefully, making sure it was high enough up the steep canyon, named Stony Gulch, that rainwater would stream past, eventually ending up in the West Fork of the San Gabriel River. A creek adjacent to the camp is deep enough to accommodate most of the runoff, though it crested at a 20-foot high wood plank bridge last month after a severe storm.

The campground is built on solid granite. The granite is so close to the surface that even this week, people traversed dirt roads without getting their shoes covered in mud.

"Our stream never dried up during the drought, and we haven't suffered any damage even though we seem to have the most rainfall," said Ken Rogers, a trail teacher who has worked at the camp for seven years.

The camp is a prime site for heavy rain because of its location high on the face of a mountain five miles north of Mt. Wilson. Fineman said that when warm-water storm systems from the Pacific make it above Mt. Wilson's peak, they react to the cold air and condense, producing extraordinarily heavy rain.

Bill Hoffer, a spokesman at the National Weather Service's station in Oxnard, said the area's location also brings it more thunder and lightning than the L.A. Basin and its foothills get.

"Their terrain -- being uphill, it really forces the clouds to develop and drop precipitation in that area," added Laura Edwards, a California climate specialist at the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno. "They are an ideal location."

As Southern California has been battered by record rains this winter, Opids Camp has come to hold a special place on rain charts. The location often gets three times as much precipitation as the basin, according to a rain gauge at the camp maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

It's impossible to know whether there is a spot in Los Angeles County that received more rain, but Edwards and other forecasters said the terrain of Opids Camp makes it unique.

The camp so far this season actually got more rain than some famously tropical places, including Bangkok, Thailand, (which averages 57.8 inches a year) or Rio de Janeiro (which averages 43.4 inches). But it's far from a global record-breaker. Cherrapunji in northeast India and Mt. Waialeale on Hawaii's Kauai Island can each get annual rain totals of 500 inches. (Officials don't keep average annual rainfall totals for Opids Camp, so a cumulative comparison is not possible).

Living above Mt. Wilson means that Fineman and his staff deal with extreme conditions year-round, and not just related to rain. In 2001, so much snow accumulated on tree branches that they began to crack, prompting officials to shut down the camp.

In September 2004, the camp was evacuated for five weeks when the Angeles National Forest was closed because of high fire danger.

'Came Out of Nowhere'

"The rain came out of nowhere in October," Fineman said. "Then it kept coming and coming. No one thought we were going to get this much."

The camp closed for two weeks in January because more than a dozen mudslides closed the Angeles Crest Highway, the only road that leads to it.

Despite this, Fineman said he'd rather be high in the mountains than enduring sliding houses and flooded freeways in the basin.

"I'm glad I'm not down there after seeing what was going on in the city this week," he said.

"The water starts up here and ends up down in the city, which can't handle this kind of weather."

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