For months, Oak Glen, California, resident Meg Grant emailed pleas to local officials: Residents needed help preparing for the next rainstorm.
In December, rainstorms brought mud, tree limbs and debris into their yards, Grant told San Bernardino County Supervisor Dawn Rowe. Residents knew the risks of living in the mountains, Grant said, but the 2020 fire left them vulnerable to mudflow raging down Birch Creek, which runs through many of their properties.
The dreaded day arrived Sept. 12 when the remains of Tropical Storm Kay brought 2.4 inches of rain within an hour and produced an immense debris flow that damaged or destroyed 16 homes. Car-size boulders came crashing down in Forest Falls, a small mountain community north of Oak Glen. A 62-year-old Forest Falls resident died as the flood of rocks, sticks and mud overtook her home.
The seed of the disastrous mudslide — which overwhelmed a county-run flood channel and buried some areas in 12 feet of mud — was planted two years ago when the El Dorado fire scorched 22,680 acres on Yucaipa Ridge, producing a burn scar that left the mountain bare and prone to rapid erosion.
"They knew this was a problem," said Grant, who grew frustrated when the county said it could do little to help residents in fortifying their homes.
In the mountains, residents recognize the risks and rewards they trade for living in remote areas. For fresh mountain air and acres of wooded land, they face wildfires, floods and debris flows.
But some residents in the unincorporated communities of Oak Glen and Forest Falls feel especially vulnerable now. They are frustrated that San Bernardino County officials have told them the county is limited in how it can use public dollars to safeguard private land and residents.
"It's not like I'm asking the county to come and dig a pool for me," said Brenda Ebrahim, who believes the county should create a catastrophic fund to help residents. "I'm asking for help to recover from a disaster not of my making."
In Oak Glen, Birch Creek intersects the community. The county is responsible for maintaining a portion of the creek where it flows through a channel constructed in 1965, built to catch and direct runoff, said Brendon Biggs, the county public works director.
On Sept. 12, the county's alert system and the National Weather Service sent out notifications to residents, Biggs said. About 3 p.m., the rain came down more intensely than anticipated, right on the burn scar on the ridge between the two communities, unleashing a flow of mud, rock and boulders. K-rail barriers were overwhelmed, and the debris crashed into Oak Glen Steakhouse & Saloon. A tree hurtled into the main dining area. The restaurant, which was closed that day, was buried in at least 6 feet of mud.