By Eric Dionne
District 8 public information officer
On Sept. 20, 2020, the Eldorado Fire burned a total of 22,744 acres in the San Bernardino National Forest near Angelus Oaks adjacent to State Route 38. The fire began at the El Dorado Ranch Park in Yucaipa when sparks from a pyrotechnic device used to generate colored smoke for a Gender Reveal Party set dry brush ablaze on an unseasonably warm day.
Residents of Mountain Home Village, Forest Falls, Angelus Oaks and Barton Flats were evacuated. The fire destroyed five homes and damaged another four and closed the route for almost a month.
The fire spanned both San Bernardino and Riverside counties, and burned for 71 days. The El Dorado Fire was fully contained on Nov. 16, 2020.
Sadly, on Sept. 17, 2020, while battling the blaze, a U.S. Forest Service hotshot crew boss, Charles “Charlie” Morton, was overcome by flames and killed in the wildfire adjacent to SR 38.
During the El Dorado Fire, Caltrans Geotechnical Design Branch B, and Caltrans District 8 Maintenance Engineering responded and began making assessments to begin an Emergency Director’s Order for repairs to the route once the fire was contained. The main focus was to rebuild and upsize the existing culverts and drains to prepare for post-fire debris flows.
The team, led by Demian Nelson (Caltrans engineering geologist), analyzed the burn scar and determined the high priority/high-risk basins that needed to be upgraded. The emergency work included a design to also install several flexible debris flow barriers that are 15 to 17 feet tall, as quickly as possible to protect SR-38 from the threat of debris flows post-fire.
Caltrans District 8 initiated two Director’s Orders (DO’s), the first to clean up the El Dorado Fire damage, clean drains, and culverts, and replace signs and guardrail. The second DO would address repairs and upgrades to the culverts, drains, rebuild the slopes, and add the debris flow barriers in the burn scar.
Caltrans Construction began the emergency projects immediately and made expeditious progress to rebuild and upsize drains and culverts in time for significant storm events, which resulted in several large-scale debris flows during 2020 and 2021.
A monsoonal event in late July 2021 released significant rainfall, impacting four of these newly installed barriers (see photos).
The debris flow barriers, culverts and drains performed as expected when they were designed and contained most of the debris that washed down the slopes during the storms. Some of the mud and debris overflowed the highway but did not cause issues to the drains or debris flow barriers, which resulted in no further damage to SR-38.
During the July 2021 monsoonal storm event, the Angelus Oaks Maintenance supervisor at that time, Allen Harp, decided to close SR-38 shortly before the debris flows and rockfall began. The magnitude of the mud and debris flows that impacted the route that day could have impacted motorists and potentially been a significant safety hazard to the traveling public.
District 8 Mountain Area Maintenance crews responded and cleaned up the route, but most importantly, no motorists were affected or injured in the event. Harp is now the maintenance area superintendent for Cajon (North Region).
This is a perfect example of what Caltrans can accomplish when using a proactive approach to emergency circumstances while working as a team to quickly identify strategies to move forward with repairs to mitigate damage that can be related to climate change with these significant rainfall events. Our colleagues’ dedication and efforts saved millions of dollars of further road damage and impacts to the surrounding communities and tourism.