I've dealt with blizzards and gully-washer floods in Colorado, and drought and El Niño rains in California. Over-bank creek floods, ultra-high tides, and storm surge have detoured my commutes. But one locally-specific weather event I've lived in the right region to experience has—to my great fortune—never come my way.
I'm talking about the San Gabriel Express, a bizarre flood of clayey mud and rocks, some boulder-sized or larger, that comes whistling down from over-steepened mountains in Southern California, usually during the winter rains following a wildfire. Something about the combination of fire-bared slope and torrential rain cuts whole hillsides loose to rumble down into the residential neighborhoods below.
John McPhee wrote brilliantly about this phenomenon In Los Angeles Versus the Mountains, in his trilogy The Control of Nature. He is also responsible for my knowing that often, the folks who get un-housed by these debris flows are recent residents in California. Because these events don't happen every winter, or even every El Niño; they're separated enough in time to allow a whole new flock of people to roost below the slopes, folks who know nothing of floods that start on the hillside. It takes the juxtaposition of rain that follows a fire season. The wildfires have retorted the waxy oil from the creosote bushes and left these greasy residues in soils that lie on slopes almost at the angle of repose.
All it takes is a little push, and the locomotive is on its tracks.
I knew exactly what weather event I would write for the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge this week:
August 26, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about the need for help in an extreme weather event. Is the help local or global? Does it arrive or the plea go ignored? It doesn’t have to be fire. Think about extreme weather occurrences and consequences.
The help in this fiction-piece is accidental; many real people have drowned or suffocated in the locomotive-fast debris as it fills their homes or engulfs their cars.
Midnight LocomotiveWinter's rains pounded for a week before the San Gabriel express arrived.
The slope above the house, burned greasy brown by autumn's fires, was a well-prepared track for this locomotive, primed to deliver tons of gluey debris down our hillside street, straight to our house.
Transplants from Georgia, we knew only of floods up from the river, in from the ocean. The rumble at midnight was our first warning of California's downhill kind. Shed-sized rocks, neighbor's automobiles, the twisted swing-set from our yard, a house-filling mud-flow, burst through the back door.
We lived: our backyard pool caught just enough.