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I Fear More What Comes After Wildfires

I stepped out of my house on Thursday morning, and sullen bands of ochre, tan, and sienna were smeared across the northern horizon. Hillsides in Glendora were burning in the cruelly dry air. Pale flakes of ash occasionally drifted through my walk, although the fire was miles away.

When I looked up later, a wide bank of smoke had spread west as far as Venice and south as far as Long Beach as if the fire attempted to encircle the basin. The smoke was gray, like a rain cloud on the horizon. But it wasn't.

Mandatory evacuation had been ordered earlier Thursday morning for Easley Canyon and San Gabriel Canyon Road and the neighborhoods west of Glendora Boulevard and north of Sierra Madre Boulevard. By noon on Thursday, the Colby Fire (as it was now named) had grown to nearly 2,000 acres. It was still uncontrolled.

By Friday morning, the fire had destroyed at least five homes, and 3,000 foothill residents had been evacuated overnight. The advance of the fireline had stopped. But I could still smell the incinerated chaparral.

Fire is natural to the foothill ecology, although the Colby Fire had a human origin. Los Angeles has periodically burned throughout its 233 history in seasons of drought and dry winds just like this season.

In 2009, wildfires in the San Gabriel Mountains covered more than 250 square miles, killed two firefighters, and destroyed 89 homes. The fires took months to burn out.

Because of fires like those, Los Angeles is judged to be so dangerous by some observers that Mike Davis based an entire book on the region's apparently lethal features, Hantavirus, mountain lions, bubonic plague, and tornadoes among them. This week gave us new reminders. A magnitude 4.4 earthquake on Wednesday was followed by another, smaller earthquakes early Thursday and Friday mornings.

When the Colby Fire began in the eastern foothills, it was entirely expected and fighting it was carefully planned for. The immediate danger was soon over.

I live a long way (in local terms) from those foothills, but what happens after in them affects me and my neighbors.

Fires in November 1933 stripped the chaparral from the slopes above Glendale. A pair of winter storms in late December ended in a 24-hour period during which 7.31 inches of rain fell. At midnight on December 31, the rain pushed a slurry of runoff, mud, and boulders down the streets of La Crescenta, La Cañada, Montrose, and Tujunga killing at least 44.

As many as 400 homes and businesses were damaged, many of them smashed by one-ton boulders tumbling out of once-dry arroyos. (Los Angeles Times photo gallery and stories of the survivors.)

The 1934 flood resulted from two days of rain that fell at a peak rate of about 1.3 inches an hour. In many places on the east coast, this might be considered normal rainfall. But those places aren't Los Angeles. They're not at the foot of geologically young mountains with steep, eroding slopes covered in highly flammable vegetation. The combination of slope, rainfall, and fire make flooding on the Los Angeles plain inevitable.

The inevitable occurred in 1938. The worst flood in modern Los Angeles history killed least 113.

The 1938 flood was the model on which the Corps of Engineers and the County Flood Control District built the concrete channel that replaced the Los Angeles River. From our fears, the corps and the county constructed 470 miles of channels, 2,400 miles of underground storm drains, and more than 30 other flood control structures that must be constantly maintained.

Wildfire in our foothills has a lurid reputation, backed by Telecopter images of flames and homeowners fleeing just ahead of them. We briefly shudder in sympathy at we see on television.

What is sure to follow one day after another fire frightens me more.

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