Foothills survive thanks to 'random act of Mother Nature'

Despite a round of heavy rain Wednesday afternoon, debris basins were expected to hold and the impact of what forecasters called the worst storm in a decade appeared to be far less than feared.

Evacuation orders were lifted 6:30 p.m. Wednesday for as many as 147 homes in La Cañada Flintridge and 85 in La Crescenta. Mostly clear skies are in the forecast for Thursday.

It was a near miss for the Station fire burn area, which had been expected to take the brunt of the storm early Wednesday morning. Instead, coastal cities and regions throughout Orange and San Bernardino counties took the major hit.

"It was really just a blessing," said L.A. County Fire Department spokeswoman Stephanie English.

Despite this, English and other officials on Wednesday called on foothill residents to heed evacuation orders and emergency directives. Just five households agreed to evacuate Tuesday night, officials reported.

"We wouldn't deploy all this for something that wasn't very, very real," English said. "It was a random act of Mother Nature that split those cells off [in other directions] at the last minute."

Those who chose to stay in their homes were asked to sign liability waivers. 

"We understand evacuation fatigue has set in because of last year," said Los Angeles County Sheriff's spokeswoman Nicole Nishida. "We dodged a bullet with this storm because it kind of split off."

Officials also warned of fragile, soaked hillsides that could still give way despite improved weather.

County Supervisor Mike Antonovich declared a state of emergency for the entire county, which experienced everything from washed out bridges and roads, to power outages and dozens of traffic accidents in water-logged streets.

There was only one fire crew and little apparent concern among the La Cañada residents on Wednesday near the top of Ocean View Boulevard and on Manistee Drive near the Mullally debris basin.

In February, a large boulder came down the hillside and choked the Mullally basin, sending a destructive wave of mud and debris onto homes — a pair of which are still under reconstruction this week on Manistee Drive.

The basin was no more than 25% full, with others in the area at less than 15% capacity, including the Pickens basin near Mountain Avenue Elementary School, said county public works spokesman Bob Spencer.

"Following a storm of this length with all the rain we've had, that's fantastic. The debris basins still have lots and lots of capacity," he said.

Thunderstorms dropped short but heavy bursts of rainfall throughout Wednesday, flooding portions of some streets, but as of 5 p.m., officials were not forced to respond to any dangerous flood or debris conditions.

Still, Lucy Jones, a chief geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey at Caltech, said there's plenty of debris left up in the burn areas just waiting for a hard enough rainshower to shake it loose.

"What's important in generating [major debris flow] is the intensity of rainfall, and until this afternoon we didn't have that much intensity," she said.

A lot of smaller debris washed downhill last winter, so this week's rain may just not have been enough to carry down the larger chunks of material that can quickly clog up basins, she added.

"What had come down the mountains last time was the fine-grain stuff. The question is whether we'll get intense-enough rainfall for a long enough time to carry down the [larger debris and] boulders" into basins, Jones said.

Megan O'Neil contributed to this report.

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