Environment & Science

Team begins analyzing La Tuna Fire mudslide risk

Firefighters clear brush on a steep slope above Cabrini Villas in Burbank as they fight the La Tuna Fire on Sunday, September 3, 2017.
Firefighters clear brush on a steep slope above Cabrini Villas in Burbank as they fight the La Tuna Fire on Sunday, September 3, 2017.
Sharon McNary / KPCC

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The La Tuna Fire is still smoldering, but a group of experts on Thursday is scheduled to begin evaluating the damage the fire has done to the Verdugo Mountains and suggest ways to keep some 1,400 homes along the fire perimeter safe when it rains later this year.

The Burned Area Emergency Response Team is a multi-agency group that includes geologists, mapping specialists, soil scientists, engineers, hydrologists and experts in plants and wildlife. They will comb over the burned area to assess the risk of mudslides. They will also prescribe methods for limiting potential damage and protecting the wildlife and soil, said Los Angeles County Fire Captain Keith Mora.

"It's really a plan to formulate what the rehab for the hillside is going to be," Mora said.

In addition, the La Tuna Fire burned terrain above six debris basins maintained by Los Angeles County Flood Control District. Those will be inspected as soon as it’s safe and cleared out so they can hold the maximum amount of water, mud and silt that might come down in the next storm, said district spokesman Kerjon Lee.

The county offers free engineering advice to property owners in the burn area to help them protect homes from potential mud flows, Lee said. Details are available on the LA County Public Works hotline at (800) 675-HELP and and website. Other emergency preparedness information is available to county residents by calling 211.

The task of restoring vegetation to the local mountains has already been a hot topic of discussion among residents on a couple of the Facebook pages serving community groups in the burn area. Some suggested planting trees or seeding some quick-growing plants on the slopes.

That worries Kitty Connolly, executive director of the Theodore Payne Foundation. The organization advocates the use of native plants in burn areas.

“My biggest concern is that they will seed those slopes with anything they can put their hands on because they’re concerned, about possible mud slides," Connolly said. "But fast-growing plants like ice plant or some grasses don’t have sufficiently deep roots to stabilize slopes."

She says native plants will do a better job of holding the soil.

Natives include California sage brush, buckwheat, toyon, laurel, sumac, manzanilla, scrub oaks and lemonade berry. 

Connolly recommended that property owners cover their backyard slopes with jute fabric that deter soil erosion and allow native plants to grow through. She also endorsed the use plant matter bolsters.

Government agencies assigned to protect the hillsides should also be careful not to install non-native plants, Connolly said. Natives have evolved to live in the Verdugo Mountains and provide crucial habitat to wildlife that have also evolved to live there.

“What I’d like to see is that plants restore themselves, to see them come back naturally,” Connolly said. "If we start interfering and taking action we’re going to change the genetic makeup of the plants that are in these areas.”

Capt. Mora said the County Fire Department is generally in agreement with Connolly, supporting the regrowth of native plants in burned areas whenever possible.