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On two La Cañada Flintridge blocks, residents face mud threat on their own

After the Station fire, Cory Ryken got a quick education in how to build a sandbag wall. What he didn’t learn was how to keep his neighborhood together.

“I’ve been predicting this for months, and it’s all coming true,” says the 39-year-old deejay, standing on 3 feet of mud and rocks that cover the backyard of his La Cañada Flintridge home.

Ryken wanders over to the property line. Debris from the Feb. 6 downpour buried his neighbors’ swimming pools, and with more rain in the forecast, he worries.

“We’re running out of space and solutions,” he says. “With each storm we’re getting more sediment, and it’s just fanning out farther. See? It’s going to be at our homes before we know it.”

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Ryken’s neighborhood is out of reach of the debris basins and storm drains that manage the runoff in the foothills. The homes here, like countless other properties built into the canyons of the San Gabriel range, have no protection from what the mountains throw upon them, and so far, the mountains have thrown plenty.

Troubles flow downhill, and along these particular streets, remedial steps -- sandbags, plywood walls -- have concentrated the flow and made it more difficult for down-slope neighbors to protect their properties. Ryken is concerned that any action he takes will make it worse down the line.

The neighborhood hoped the county and the city could address the problem by redirecting the flow from the canyon above them, but visiting officials and engineers were blunt: That land is privately owned and lies outside their jurisdiction.

The pronouncement has forced some neighbors to take matters into their own hands and left others wondering about the community they call home.

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Imagine two streets running parallel to each other. They head uphill, then hook to the right, where they stop, the higher of the two in a vacant lot bordered by a privately owned canyon strewn with boulders, decomposed granite, charred chaparral.

This is Ryken’s neighborhood. The streets are La Forest Drive and Castle Knoll Road, where backyards abut one another, and for years, winter runoff has coursed out of the canyon, crossed the vacant land and fanned out into the rear of the deep pine- and acacia-shaded lots on La Forest.

But after the Station fire, city and county officials warned that this year would be different, and they lined vulnerable depressions and strategic turns in the roads with K-rails.

Eric Grey thought he knew what to expect. Grey is Ryken’s neighbor on Castle Knoll. After evacuating from the fire, Grey received a packet from the county telling him how to build a sand-bag wall, how to apply for flood insurance and what to expect when it rains.

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Two years ago, Grey, 38, moved his family from Massachusetts. He works for an investment management firm in downtown Los Angeles and never thought he’d have to educate himself in urban hydrology and engineering. But he did, and by Halloween had built an impressive barricade in front of his house.

The county had also provided him with a map of the drainage pattern for his street and home, and assuming it was the complete picture, he considered himself safe. After the first major storm of the season, he stepped outside into a veneer of mud that had sheeted across the backyard.

Two neighbors up slope and adjacent to the vacant lot took a bigger hit, and after cleaning up their pools and re-landscaping, they erected 8-foot-high plywood walls the length of their properties. It was what Mike Miranda, an engineer with the county Department of Public Works, and Edward Hitti, director of public works for La Cañada Flintridge, advised.

Miranda declined an interview because of possible litigation, and Hitti responded with an e-mail, citing the city’s ongoing assessment of “the impact of the mudflow in this area.”

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Residents describe walking the canyon and property lines with both men. They were all concerned about the possibility of a debris flow that at worst would damage up to nine properties.

Various proposals were discussed, the simplest of which was adding more K-rails to divert the runoff from the canyon onto La Forest, but the city and county never pursued this. According to Grey, neither agency had the authority to place K-rails on private property, and each was concerned about liability. It is also unclear whether the county or city has contacted the canyon’s owner about the hazard.

The homeowners soon realized they were on their own to solve this problem. Ryken and Grey wondered how a solution for everyone could be found when officials recommended that everyone look out for themselves.

“There is no way we will ever keep ourselves safe,” Ryken says, considering the size of the mountain and the potential runoff. “Without city or county cooperation, we’re doomed.”

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According to Mark Pestrella, deputy director of the county Department of Public Works, homeowners bear the responsibility for protecting their property. The county, he said, can only offer recommendations for channeling mud and debris into the street where public work crews can remove it.

“Ultimately, the short-term solution,” said Pestrella, “is for each homeowner to protect their own property -- and to be reasonable about it.”

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When the plywood walls went up, homeowners down slope began to worry, not because the walls were unreasonable; indeed, they were the only way to protect those houses. Most bothersome was a 20-foot gap between them that would funnel debris farther into their yards.

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When one neighbor attempted to bridge that gap with a wall of his own, Miranda asked him to take it down. Blocking that drainage, the neighbor was told, would create a dam, which would be more dangerous.

When the second storm of the season arrived, Ryken, Grey and another neighbor worked into the night, digging a channel along their fence line and shoring it up with sandbags. Their effort was frantic and hurried, but it worked. Over the next few weeks, the line was fortified and enlarged.

But the storm two weeks ago erased their efforts. Debris filled the Greys’ pool. Mud and rocks spread across Ryken’s backyard and then poured into Richard and Nancy Weyermuller’s pool. The displaced water flooded their home.

Days later as industrial dryers drew the moisture out of their floors, the Weyermullers, both in their 60s, wondered what would happen next. They worried about the next storm and the expanding footprint of the debris flow.

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Residents above them “need to take their share” of the runoff and not divert all the mud and debris down slope, says Richard, a civil engineer with the county. But as he admits, there is no way to calculate how much is enough. That can only be determined after the next storm -- after the damage is done.

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A skip loader has dug out the Greys’ backyard, and Grey is thinking about contacting an attorney. Ryken already has. They want to know who is responsible.

Perhaps it’s the city, Grey says. Perhaps it’s his neighbors. Perhaps it’s even himself. Either way, he realizes it is a delicate question.

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Everyone “is struggling with their conception of themselves as part of the community,” Grey says, a struggle made more difficult because so much lies outside their control.

What’s clear in his mind, though, is that government agencies are afraid of litigation, private property is inviolate and all this mud is his.

In December, he considered building his own wall but held back. Today he wonders about the wisdom of that decision.

thomas.curwen@ latimes.com

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Times staff writer Corina Knoll contributed to this report.


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