A literal river of mud, debris and water crashed down the Sierra foothills Saturday. A wall of mud destroyed 15 homes, part of the Mt. Whitney Fish Hatchery facilities and left Highway 395 crippled and closed by a 1/4 mile mudslide.
The sudden devastation brought firefighters from Independence, Lone Pine, Big Pine and CalFire. The CHP immediately closed the highway at both north and south ends of Independence. For more than 6 hours, the highway remained totally blocked off as tons of mud slid across and into the south end of the Fort Independence Indian Reservation and beyond. The slide did not reach the town of Independence nor the Los Angeles aqueduct.
Sheriff’s officials said that above the highway, the volume of water and debris out of North Oak Creek was “incredible.” Wide swaths of grey debris and rivers of water flowed down the foothills of the Sierra from a sudden and dramatic downpour high in the mountains. The water came down in an area devoid of plant life, where last July’s fire destroyed thousands of acres. Most believe that the fire damage left the area vulnerable to mudslide and flood potential. The destructive flood took out all of the buildings at the Bright Ranch in the Oak Creek drainage. Resident there, Mr. Keith Bright, was not at home when the disaster hit. Further down Oak Creek a dozen or so homes were lost or took major damage.
Saturday night, residents of Oak Creek were evacuated. One man, trapped on his roof with boiling mud and flood waters below him, was rescued. No lives were lost and no one was injured.
At Mt. Whitney Fish Hatchery, rushing mud and water destroyed several homes there as well as the fish race ways. All of the trout were lost. The hatchery building itself remained untouched but the other facilities were virtually destroyed.
Temporary evacuation centers were set up in Independence and Big Pine. Traffic backed up for miles, both north and south. Finally, around midnight, the CHP began to escort traffic through one lane. That pattern continued for most of Sunday with long waits and impatient motorists.
With flash flood warnings still in effect, the Forest Service decided not to issue Wilderness permits from Onion Valley to Lone Pine. Saturday night Highways 190 and 136 into Death Valley were closed due to flash floods and debris. 190 re-opened Sunday with 136 expected to follow.
Inyo Sheriff Bill Lutze declared a local emergency and asked citizens to take an active role in their safety. He said that no one should enter flood zones, those in flood areas should seek higher ground and never drive through flooded roadways.