February 2019

By Scott Breeden

Fifty years ago this month, a series of heavy rainstorms caused canyon creeks to overflow, sending mud, cars, furniture, bridges and houses downstream toward Irvine Lake. Water pipes broke. Roads washed out. With Silverado Canyon Road underwater near the church, some residents had to be evacuated by Marine Corps helicopter.

The storms affected much of Orange County—old cars were intentionally dumped along some stream banks for erosion control. Somebody rode down flooded Laguna Canyon on a surfboard. But our canyons were especially hard hit. On Feb. 25, 1969, several tons of mud and debris suddenly roared downhill and crashed through the rear of the Silverado fire station.  Several people had taken shelter there during the storm. Five of them died in the muck that filled the building.

Not too long after this, the forerunner of the Inter-Canyon League (ICL) was organized by canyon residents, partly as a way to help each other out in emergencies. In 2010, for example, the ICL helped coordinate volunteers for “digging out” after that year’s floods. Taking a slightly different approach, the Canyon Watch and Fire Watch programs have aimed to prevent major problems by nipping them in the bud. During high-fire-prone conditions, residents volunteer to patrol areas of the canyons and radio back reports of fire or other potential dangers.

Be prepared
Emergency preparedness, in fact, was the main topic at the ICL monthly meeting on Jan. 8.  One question that came up was why there seemed to be less interest in Canyon Watch these days. Was it because there hadn’t been any major emergencies in a while?

Unlike 50 years ago, canyon dwellers now have cell phone and Internet service. Usually. But current Canyon Watch Chair Marion Schuller speculated that “too many ways to communicate” might be a problem if there is no widely recognized single source for emergency information. What happens if cell phones quit working, and there’s no Internet access?  To address questions like this, the ICL now plans to sponsor public emergency preparedness workshops, sometime soon, at both the Silverado and Modjeska volunteer fire stations.

Until then, residents can check out the Fire Safe Council East Orange County Canyons’s new brochure that includes advice applicable to floods, mudslides and earthquakes, as well as to fires (currently available online at fsceocc.org).  And stay in touch with your neighbors -- especially those with landline phones that still work when the power goes out.

Meanwhile, downstream ...
Both the Irvine Lake Dam and the Villa Park Dam were built to contain 50-year floods.  In 1969, they both overflowed.

Currently, the owner of some land downstream from the Villa Park Dam (Milan Capital) is doggedly pursuing approval for a plan to build 128 houses there. It is estimated that if the Villa Park Dam were to fail, water would begin inundating the site in 105 minutes.

To address this issue, Milan has proposed that a consultant be hired to come up with an Emergency Evacuation Plan for the houses. Quoting the Revised Draft Environmental Impact Report: “The plan shall require that streets be identified with clear and visible signage and, if necessary, wayfinding signage be provided to identify exit points.”  Problem solved?

Other anniversaries
Dan Dulac at the Santiago Retreat Center reminds us that it was 250 years ago, this July, when Captain Gaspar de Portola led a small party of soldiers and two priests on an exploratory trek through our area. They named a creek in honor of the patron saint of Spain, namely, Saint James—in Spanish, “Santiago.” This honor, of course, was later bestowed upon a canyon, a road, a college, a mountain, some stables, and a Black Star Canyon retreat center.

Pam Ragland’s annual Christmas Holiday Helpers appeal raised $505 for a few canyon folks needing help during the holidays. And at Diandra Jay’s request, people honored her recent birthday with charitable contributions instead of gifts, allowing her to donate $250 to the Silverado-Modjeska Recreation and Park District.

Fresh flowers
One of our early blooming native chaparral plants is wild cucumber, a vine that emerges from a huge taproot after the first winter rain. Sprawled on the ground, it looks a bit like ivy with small, white flowers. If any of the wispy tendrils touch a nearby bush or fence, though, they wind around and hold tight, enabling the plant to climb several feet off the ground. In summer, the plant dies back to the root.

The fruit of the wild cucumber looks like a spiky green lemon and contains four or more hard, dark seeds. Unlike its garden-variety cousin, however, it’s not really edible. But if you were so inclined, you could remove all the prickles from a wild cucumber, chop them up into tiny pieces and call the result prickle relish.

​​Canyon Beat:

Flashback:  the ‘69 flood