Flash floods, wilting heat and lightning on the beach. It’s monsoon season in a place that’s not supposed to have one.
Changes in ocean temperature thousands of miles away have delivered Arizona-style summer weather to Southern California, driving up humidity and causing sporadic destruction.
Warm equatorial water in the Pacific, from mainland Mexico to Peru, normally pumps monsoonal air up the Sea of Cortez into the Southwest, with mountains blocking it from the coastal plains of Southern California.
But this year, the ocean temperatures are higher than normal, climatologists say, producing a more powerful “tropical wave” that made it all the way to the coast.
A week after lightning strikes killed one person at Venice Beach, tropical conditions sent flash floods roaring through the San Bernardino Mountains on Sunday afternoon, causing the death of a motorist near Mt. Baldy.
FOR THE RECORD:
Extreme weather: In the Aug. 5 Section A, an article about flash floods in Southern California said Mt. Baldy is in the San Bernardino Mountains. It is in the San Gabriel Mountains. —
The victim was identified Monday as Joo Hwan Lee, 48, of El Segundo, who was near the Mt. Baldy trail head in his Prius when it was pushed into a swollen creek.
Mt. Baldy resident Marc Burns, 56, said he stepped outside his home Sunday afternoon as punctured propane tanks hissed and boulders the size of cars rolled downstream in a creek that had been dry for years.
On the opposite side of the creek, he saw a car lodged between a porch and a tree in the stream bed, with water gushing over it and a boulder jammed in the window. Its hazard lights were blinking. He got two friends to cross the bridge with him and examine the car.
One of them looked into the Prius from as close as he could get in the raging water. The car was filled with mud, but he couldn’t see anyone. So they left.
On Monday morning, as the storm moved north, Burns said residents took stock.
His home fared well. He had seen the news and asked a neighbor, “So who was it that died yesterday?”
“It was a hiker trapped in a white Prius at the trail head to Mt. Baldy,” came the reply.
His heart sank. How had they not seen him?
“I feel guilty that we didn’t try harder,” he said, resting on his veranda overlooking the creek, now barely more than a trickle.
Around Mt. Baldy, population 1,200, residents couldn’t believe the storm’s fury.
Michelle Olson, 51, recalled staring out the window of a flooded basement Sunday afternoon muttering, “Oh my God, how bad can this get?”
A few minutes later, the walls started popping and cracking as a debris flow wrenched at the house’s foundation. The walls started to give way, and mud and rocks poured through her home. She ran outside and jumped on the cab of her pickup.
In her 23 years here, she had never seen anything like it.
“God, turn off the spigot or I’ll turn into an atheist!” she yelled. “And by the way, save my cats.”
Olson’s home survived, as did her three cats and her faith in God.
Volunteer shovel brigades fanned out Monday across the center of town to assist property owners in getting vehicles out of knee-high muck, broken branches and boulders. The floors of dozens of cabins were covered in sediment.
“It’s a big mess up on this hill, and most of it is in the middle of our little nest,” Mt. Baldy Fire Department Chief William Stead said, adding that 10 to 15 homes were seriously damaged and that six of them were red-tagged.
Fire and rescue authorities grumbled about a local controversy that has delayed construction of a cellphone tower on Mt. Baldy. The project has run into opposition from residents who fear that it would invite more development and ruin the rustic ambience of their mountain hamlet.
One county official, who didn’t want to give his name because of the heated feelings on the subject, said, “We could have used that tower yesterday.”
Steve Sacks, a resident of 28 years and spokesman for a local group Keep Baldy Wild, said risks come with the territory. “We live with certain dangers,” he said, pulling rocks and debris off his car. “But we are willing to live with those risks because it’s one of the only nearly pristine places left in Southern California.”
The freak weather — the same type of system that hurled lightning bolts on Venice Beach and Santa Catalina Island the weekend before — covered much of the region.
In San Diego County, beaches cleared of people as thunder rumbled and a hard south wind whipped up. Tinder-dry foothills got a shower. And places that missed out on rain were instead treated to swampy heat, with 75 degrees feeling like 90.
In Highland, at the foot of the San Bernardino Mountains, mud blasted through Jaime Rodriguez’s backyard fence, seemingly out of nowhere. Nine pit bull puppies were swept away.
He spent all night and Monday shoveling two feet of mud from inside his home.
But the mountains suffered the worst. The extra moisture created what National Weather Service forecaster Philip Gonsalves said is known as an “orographic flow.” The air between the clouds and the ground was saturated with moisture, and as it reached the mountains, it was pushed together like a sponge being squeezed.
Nearly 60 miles east of Mt. Baldy, hundreds of residents of the canyon community of Forest Falls were stranded as the water set off flows of mud and boulders. On Monday, crews dug out the last of four walls of debris — one of them 10 feet high — that blocked Valley of the Falls Drive, the only access route to the town.
“It’s like somebody threw a huge mud ball on the town and it’s just sitting there,” San Bernardino County firefighter Ryan Beckers said. “It’s one road in, one road out.”
Six homes in Forest Falls sustained moderate to severe damage, and two dogs were killed. Doug Roath, 48, heard a roar above his house after a half-hour of rain. He evacuated for higher ground and brought a family of nearby hikers with him. From above, they watched the rocky slurry crash into his home.
“It had us surrounded. These people had two little kids with them and asked if they were going to die,” he said. “My doghouse with my dogs in it was just spinning in a whirlpool.”
Roath rescued the dogs when the flood eased. He spent Monday sifting through the sediment, picking up belongings. Community members helped him dig out, and town residents have offered him financial help and housing.
“The story’s really not about flash floods or the damage to my house,” Roath said. “It’s really about how people have come together. That’s always been the way it is here.”
Times staff writers Joe Mozingo and Veronica Rocha contributed to this report.