Inside Seven
Current Issue: September 2014
The fire in Angeles National Forest burned hundreds of signs on SR-2 and SR-39 –- all of which have to be replaced –- including the sign in front of the Chilao Maintenance Yard.

After Burn: Cleaning Up After the Fire
by  Kelly Markham
Issue Date: 10/2009

Since the massive fire in Angeles National Forest, Caltrans has been busy replacing miles of guardrail, delineators, paddle markers, sections of pavement and hundreds of signs. The hard part hasn’t even begun.

When firefighters finally subdued the enormous fire in Angeles National Forest more than a month after it first ignited, it seemed the worst was over. No lives were in jeopardy. Structures were safe. Residents in surrounding communities could take a walk outside without coughing. The immediate danger had passed. But for Caltrans, the grueling cleanup work had just begun.

The fire burned over 160,000 acres, killed two firefighters, and destroyed almost 200 structures – including three homes at the Chilao Maintenance Yard. It also ravaged two District 7 highways: 40 miles of Angeles Crest Highway (SR-2) and seven miles of San Gabriel Canyon Road (SR-39). Thousands of wooden guardrail posts were incinerated, leaving the metal beams they once supported lying on the ground. Asphalt, berms and drainage systems were damaged. Aluminum road signs were torched. Delineation lines were blackened. Hillsides were scorched. Vegetation was burned to a crisp.

“In some places, the fire got really hot, and it just sat there and burned everything until there was nothing left,” said Deputy Director of Maintenance Dan Freeman. “Part of the forest is gone. Everything’s black, except for little piles of white ash. It looks like a wasteland.”

Once the flames subsided, Caltrans’ first order of business was to clear SR-2 and SR-39 so firefighters could get though – and to keep them clear when rockslides dumped more debris on the roads. Next up: Replace everything that burned, including four miles of guardrails, drainage pipes, delineators, postmile markers, hundreds of signs and sections of pavement. Director’s orders authorized $12.5 million for three emergency contracts so that work by outside contractors could begin immediately.

Meanwhile, Caltrans maintenance crews began pulling 12-hour shifts, seven days a week. Workers are making good progress – SR-39 has already reopened – but restoring the infrastructure to its pre-burn state is only part of the challenge. The really tricky part has yet to come.

Massive Debris Flows

“What I worry about most is what happens this winter,” said Ed Toledo, maintenance area superintendent for North Region 3. “We’re trying to get the culverts, basins and drain inlets ready for the first rains.”

Water – the most basic tool in extinguishing fire – can also be the agent of immense destruction in its aftermath.

“When the rains come, there could be massive debris flows,” said Damage Restoration Coordinator Bill Varley. “All it takes is one storm to start flushing everything on the surface downward. You get an avalanche of mud, water, ash, fragments of wood, rocks, everything.”

To understand Varley’s concern, keep in mind that the burn-off in some areas was complete – nothing was spared – and the unforgiving terrain is rocky, unstable and steep. Debris flowing down the mountain will not make a gentle descent. It will gather speed, volume and strength as it travels, becoming an unstoppable muddy juggernaut looking for a place to land.

That’s why crews in Bobcats have been clearing out debris basins as if they’re on a holy quest, scooping up endless loads of rock and charred vegetation. Debris basins catch the flow off the mountain and protect drainage systems. Keeping them clear can be challenging in the best of times. In the aftermath of a staggering fire that will likely produce extensive runoff, the job becomes exponentially more difficult, requiring round-the-clock vigilance.

“It could be really rough, and they’re talking about another El Nino this year,” Toledo said, referring to the cyclical climate pattern that brings heavy rain. “We’re doing everything we can to get ready for it.”

To help minimize the sloughing, Caltrans, in partnership with other agencies, is looking into erosion control measures to stabilize vulnerable slopes near the road. One option under consideration is hydromulch, a blanket of water and fiber mulch that holds the soil in place. Additionally, the mulch stabilizes native seeds that survived the fire and helps them germinate when the rains come, pushing their erosion-reducing roots into the hillside.

The Key Question

SR-2 motorists are a diverse bunch, including commuters who use the highway as a bypass, nature lovers who revel in the beauty of the forest, and motorcyclists who consider the twisting highway to be one of the best rides in the nation. They all have one thing in common: They want to know when the road will reopen.

“We’re still doing damage assessment, but our priority is to get the portion from La Canada to Angeles Forest open first,” said Freeman, describing the nine-mile section that runs north from the Foothill Freeway (I-210). The goal is to have that stretch of road open when Angeles Forest Highway, a county road, is reopened, restoring the Antelope Valley commuter route. Freeman estimates that should happen by mid- to late October. The remainder of SR-2 is scheduled to reopen by mid-November.

Currently, SR-2 isn’t ready for public use. The hazards are numerous: missing guardrail, illegible signs, rockslides, downed power lines, plummeting boulders, even small fires that continue to burn. Plus, portions of the road have been closed to accommodate contractors’ equipment and government vehicles.

Ultimately, it will take years for Angeles National Forest to return to its pre-burn state, the forest flora once again the lush green that has long enticed city dwellers into the mountains. Mother Nature will have to do most of the heavy lifting in bringing the forest back, but Caltrans workers are doing their part, too. They’re doing it one delineator at a time, one sign at a time, one load of debris at a time – and they’re hoping the rainy months are unseasonably dry. 

The fire burned the wooden posts holding up metal guardrail, leaving it laying on the ground. In some spots, the fire scorched the highway and delineators. Sections of pavement will have to be replaced and restriped. One of the biggest concerns going forward is rockslides, which could become particularly problematic when the rains come. A worker removes a load of fallen rock, dirt and charred vegetation from a debris basin.