Life In The Holy Fire Burn Area, Where Every Time It Rains, You May Have To Leave Your Home
Powerful storms are dumping rain all over the state this week. It's a nerve-wracking time for people living near the burn areas of the Holy Fire, which scorched more than 23,000 acres in Riverside and Orange Counties back in August of 2018. Riverside County has issued more tha a dozen evacuation orders since the fire - including now - because of possible mudslides. KVCR's Danielle Fox has more on how some people feel saddled with the costs.
In the past three months, Amy Hawkins has evacuated her home around seven times. She’s retired and lives in Lake Elsinore right at the foot of the mountain where the Holy Fire struck back in August, scorching over 23,000 acres in Riverside and Orange County.
Since the fire, Riverside County has issued 14 mandatory evacuations — including now. Thursday morning, Hawkins’s neighborhood, Robinhood Oaks, was hit by a mudslide and is experiencing flash flooding.
There are no debris basins above her neighborhood because it’s too steep. The bowl-shaped facilities at the bottom of canyons catch rocks and muck during heavy rain.
So whenever there’s a storm, she’s at serious risk of getting hit by a mudslide.
“In a heavy rain, I couldn’t get out, the waters are too high to get out, so I have to go when they say go,” she said.
Hawkins cares for her brother-in-law who’s disabled and gets overwhelmed in crowded situations.
“I couldn’t go to the evacuation center with him. I couldn’t. It wouldn’t work out. He would, you know, the fear and the confusion and everything, it would be too much, so we have to go to a quieter place,” she said. “It has influenced you know going to a hotel versus going to a friend’s.”
To date, Hawkins and her family have spent over $3,000 on hotels and emergency meals.
The evacuations and storms have also taken a toll on county resources.
Some of the debris basins in Riverside County hadn’t been cleared for a decade.
“Now we’re doing it weekly,” said Jason Uhley, General Manager at Riverside County Flood Control. “We’re talking about moving thousands of truckloads of material that gets trapped behind our dams and sometimes in our channels, and so we’ve incurred a cost of probably over $5.5 million to date.”
The Office of Emergency Management has expanded the size of the county’s debris basins over the past several months so they can capture more material in case of a bigger storm.
“We’ve been having extraordinary amounts of debris come after ordinary winter storms,” said Bob Cullen, Assistant Chief Engineer at Riverside County Flood Control. “So far there’s nothing special about this winter but we’ve had 4,000 dump truck loads full of material coming to one of our basins in about half an hour.”
For neighborhoods that don’t have debris basins, Uhley said the only thing people can really do is evacuate.
Suzanne Belle said this reality has made selling her house a nightmare.
“It’s been on the market for six months and it’s gotten no offers and no bites but it’s had more trauma those six months than in the eight years that I’ve lived there,” she said.
She put her house in Lake Elsinore up for sale right before the fire. Since then, she’s spent tens of thousands of dollars repairing her yard from a mudslide that hit in December. Insurance would only cover about a fourth of the cost. And everytime it rains, she has to clear a creek in her yard of debris.
Belle lives in the same neighborhood as Hawkins. The hills are too steep even for debris nets. Trucks couldn’t make it up to unload them.
“That particular community is probably the single toughest one of all the thousands of homes that are at the base of the Cleveland National Forest,” said Kevin Jeffries, the Riverside County Supervisor representing Lake Elsinore. “There’s no man-made improvements today that would be available to fully protect their homes. They’re just in that dangerous of a situation where they live.”
Jeffries said beyond helping out with evacuations, there’s not much the county can do. The creek that runs through the neighborhood and Belle’s yard — it’s private property — so the county isn’t responsible for dredging it or covering any damage costs.
“To be brutally honest, we’re just trying to survive this next month and get through this winter so that we can start really looking at our next steps because we have a lot of challenges,” he said.
There are a number of streams that trickle down from the national forest and end up going straight under major roads, like the I-15 freeway and Temescal Canyon Road. Recent storms have shut down sections of roads because of debris flow. Jeffries said the county is developing permanent solutions, like building culverts.
As for the millions of dollars the county is spending right, Jeffries said it’s likely to happen again until the mountain vegetation fully grows back, which can take three to five years.
“So we’re not out of the woods by any step of the imagination,” he said.
For Belle, this means that when there’s a big storm, she and her neighbors have to clean up all the debris themselves.
“We live differently, we live real cheaply cause I have to pay for things like backhoes and tractors with the scoopers on them,” she said.
The county’s agreed to collect the debris from the streets if residents put it by their curbs — but the rest is on them.
“Right now it’s raining here, so I’m watching our Facebook group to see who is updating and that everybody’s okay,” said Tara Swick.
She’s a stay-at-home mom and a creator of a neighborhood Facebook group that she monitors like a hawk anytime it rains. Swick also lives in Robinhood Oaks and said the group exists to step up for what the county can’t. Neighbors take roll call to find out who’s leaving and staying during evacuations. And they organize group cleanups to dredge the creek after a storm hits.
“Even when it’s mandatory evacuations, you know, I drove over there, parked the car as close as I can get, and walked up there. It’s just I need to know that everybody is okay,” she said.
The mudslide that destroyed Belle’s backyard in December also shot straight through Swick’s home. Now she’s temporarily living about 30 minutes away. But that doesn’t stop her from heading the Facebook group or driving back in the middle of a rainstorm to help her neighbors. She said many of them don’t evacuate because they don’t want to be in the dark about what happens to their homes.
“You know we’re all friends now, whereas before not so much,” she said. “You kind of just get complacent, you don’t really get to know your neighbors. Well, we know all of our neighbors. We know all of them and their situations, and we all look out for each other.”
Swick said the group is a safe spot in a bad situation. And for now, that’s pretty much all they can count to avoid getting stuck in the mud.