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CA faces post-fire hazards

"The air is thick, and you can just look at your cars," to see the blanket of ash descending on Southern California, said Judy Peterson.

BY SUSAN KIM | SAN DIEGO, Calif. | November 28, 2003

"The air is thick, and you can just look at your cars," to see the blanket of ash descending on Southern California, said Judy Peterson on Friday from the First Baptist Church in Bay Park, a San Diego community three miles from where decimating wildfires struck.

As Santa Ana winds blew ash throughout California's burned areas, residents were warned to stay indoors or to use protective masks if they have to go outside, according to a spokesperson for the San Diego County Air Pollution Control District.

"We urge residents to exercise caution," he said. Vulnerable people including children and anyone who has asthma were urged to avoid outdoor activity altogether.

Peterson said, as 45-mph winds kicked up, residents knew bad air would soon follow. "Government agencies have been giving free masks to people," she said.

Members of her small church about 20 in the congregation were working with national disaster response faith-based and voluntary agencies to continue providing meals for those affected by the wildfires.

Forecasters expected hazardous air quality to last through the weekend.

Thousands of families lost their homes and possessions in Southern California when wildfires roared through earlier in November. Wildfires stretched from the Mexican border to northwest of Los Angeles, and the blazes covered about 750,000 acres.

The wildfires burned more acreage and damaged more buildings than any others in California history, state officials said. The Cedar Fire in San Diego County scorched about 273,000 acres, breaking the 1932 record of 220,000 acres set for a single blaze. The Cedar Fire also destroyed 2,820 buildings.

In all, more than 4,800 structures were destroyed and 22 people were killed in this year's California wildfires.

Church World Service and its partner organizations have been identifying special populations that may need assistance beyond what the federal government can provide.

Bad air isn't the only hazard Californians will face in the near future. Mudslides are a given for areas where trees and vegetation have burned off hillsides.

"There will be mudslides," said Karen Terrill, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, in a public statement. "We know they will occur. So what we are trying to do now is evaluate where the biggest threats are and try to lessen the damage as much as possible."

In San Bernardino, canyons drain rain from mountains left bare of shrubs, grass and small trees. The plants would have absorbed the winter rains - and would have helped to hold the soil in place.

U.S. Forest Service teams will spend some $2 million during the next few weeks to stabilize slopes scoured bare by the Old and Grand Prix fires. Those two fires burned some 150,000 acres. Crews will spread more than 1 thousand tons of rice straw on the ground and from the air. The hay is designed to help speed the growth of grasses whose roots will help stabilize the soil.

But there isn't much time for grass to grow before the winter rains set in. And hay can be dropped in only a small area of the land affected by fire.

The Old and Grand Prix fires did most of their damage on the steep slopes of the San Bernardino Mountains just east of the city within the borders of the San Bernardino National Forest. Dropping straw on slopes steeper than 60 degrees can do more harm than good because the straw washes downhill and clogs culverts and storm drains.

The Silverwood Lake, about 20 miles east of San Bernardino, is particularly vulnerable. The Old Fire burned much of the forest surrounding Lake Silverwood. Heavy rains could dump huge amounts of sediment into waters that supply 12 million people in the Los Angeles basin.

Wildfires also have a peculiar effect that could make matters worse when the winter rains begin. Some of the most common plants in the burned areas chamise and scrub oak emit a substance during fires that mixes with the soil and makes the soil virtually waterproof up to a depth of 6 inches. Forest experts call it "nature's Gore-Tex."

With so much water-resistant soil and with few roots left to hold it in place even a light rainfall could trigger floods and mudslides. As soon as water hits, it will start moving the soil, warned forecasters, and debris flows will begin immediately.

California is a state that's particularly vulnerable to mudslides. Storms in 1982 and 1983 caused mudslides from Santa Cruz to Marin counties in Northern California. Mudslides killed 33 people, destroyed more than 250 homes and caused $900 million in damage. One mudslide killed 10 people in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Another storm in 1998 caused 63 mudslides that damaged or destroyed 200 structures, and killed nine people.

And in San Bernardino, storms in the early 1980s sent debris into a development in the floodplain of one of the dozens of canyons that channel water from the nearby mountains. The damaged homes were subsequently bulldozed, and the land turned into a park.

Many mudslide prevention methods constructing debris flow basins, for example take time to construct, and won't be ready in time for winter rains.

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