The SCV’s long history of dealing with disasters

A water dropping helicopter makes a drop in high winds as the Tick Fire burns down a canyon and treatens homes as viewed from Stonecrest Park in Canyon Country on Thursday, October 24, 2019. Dan Watson/The Signal

By Caleb Lunetta

Signal Senior Staff Writer

When you think of disasters in the Santa Clarita Valley, is the first thing that comes to mind thje massive flood in ‘28? Maybe you think of the Northridge Earthquake in ‘94? Or perhaps it conjures up the last time you saw evacuations being posted about a wildfire.

Whether it be flooding, fires or earthquakes, the SCV has seen its fair share of cataclysmic events that shook the community to its core and then prompted its citizens to rebuild.

A few of these events certainly come to top of mind, and prove excellent examples of the SCV’s resiliency: The St. Francis Dam collapse of 1928; the 1994 Northridge earthquake; and the 2019 Tick Fire.

St. Francis Dam

Photo by George R. Watson

Three minutes before midnight on March 12, 1928, the St. Francis Dam, located in San Francisquito Canyon, catastrophically failed, sending a 180-foot wall of water — consisting of 12.4 billion gallons of water and tens of thousands of pounds of concrete — down the Canyon at a speed of 12 mph.

Shortly before the dam’s collapse, Ace Hopewell, a carpenter, was riding his motorcycle along the width of the St. Francis Dam. A few seconds after 11:57 p.m., he heard a “landslide-like crashing sound from back in the dam area,” according to an article on the disaster. 

“It turns out, Hopewell was the last living person to see the St. Francis Dam before it ruptured, creating the second largest disaster in California history as an epic flood of water and debris traveled 55 miles through San Francisquito Canyon and the Santa Clara River Valley, devastating the towns of Piru, Fillmore, and Santa Paula, and killing between 450 and 600 people before emptying into the Pacific Ocean at Montalvo between Oxnard and Ventura,” Alan Pollack wrote in the March-April 2008 issue of Heritage Junction Dispatch.

Photo by George R. Watson

The Signal, in their first issue since the collapse — The Signal was still a weekly newspaper at the time — the paper published a list of names known to have been killed in the flooding, as well as the names of those that were still missing.

Ultimately, when the dust had settled and the community had regathered itself, nearly 500 men, women and children were reported dead.

Incredible stories of survival emerged under The Signal’s front-page banner head over the next few weeks, such as the Maier family, who had clambered through their attic roof only to watch as their house was lifted by the water and drifted down stream until it could be dropped back down again.

Northridge Earthquake

At roughly 4:30 a.m. on Jan. 17, 1994, residents throughout northern L.A. County felt a shake they would remember the feeling of for the rest of their lives.

Just one mile south-southwest of Northridge, a blind thrust fault jolted to life at a depth of 18.4 kilometers underground, creating a 6.7 magnitude earthquake.

“Damage was wide-spread, sections of major freeways collapsed, parking structures and office buildings collapsed, and numerous apartment buildings suffered irreparable damage,” reads an SCV History story entry about the event. “Damage to wood-frame apartment houses was very widespread in the San Fernando Valley and Santa Monica areas, especially to structures with ‘soft’ first floor or lower-level parking garages.”

The “urban earthquake,” as it would later be dubbed by a number of agencies and media outlets, resulted in the deaths of 57 deaths and $20 billion in damages.

Specifically in the city of Santa Clarita and it’s 150,000 residents at the time, City Hall was deemed uninhabitable, and a small tent city for the emergency response effort would be set up in the Valencia Boulevard parking lot.

 While the epicenter was recorded in Reseda, the SCV experienced major damage, which left residents cut off from the rest of Los Angeles County as its main artery to the area, Interstate 5, collapsed. The city formed six years prior would need to figure out a way to coordinate their emergency response largely cut off or isolated from the surrounding world.

Tick Fire

When thinking about the largest fires to affect the SCV, depending on your age you may say names such as the Ranch Fire — which burned 972,147 acres from Santa Barbara County to the U.S. border in 2007 — or the Buckweed Fire — which burned 38,356 acres in 2007 and the evacuations of 15,000 people — or the Sand Fire— which burned 41,432 acres in 2016 and resulted in the evacuations of roughly 10,000 homes. 

However, arguably one of the most disruptive fires in the Santa Clarita Valley history, the Tick Fire in 2019 most directly affected the Santa Clarita Valley in a way that no vegetation blaze had done before in recent memory.

While having a considerably smaller acreage than others before it, with the 2019 blaze being held to 4,615 acres, it did result in the mass evacuation of roughly 40,000 people for the Santa Clarita Valley. Starting Oct. 24, 2019, the inferno resulted in school closures, people calling out of work and makeshift tent/car cities in Canyon Country grocery store parking lots. 

First breaking out at 1:40 p.m. due to a man lighting a barbeque in his backyard that eventually fell over in the high winds, the fire spread from Tick Canyon Road to the various surrounding Canyon Country neighborhoods.

A total of 22 buildings, including a number of homes, would be destroyed, 27 others would be damaged, and residents who lost their homes would be required to rebuild over the next two years.

A state of emergency was called for by Governor Gavin Newsom on Oct. 24, and the L.A. County Board of Supervisors issued an emergency declaration of their own.  Questions continue to linger regarding the lack of power during the Tick Fire — the power had been shut off by Southern California Edison during a public safety power shutoff, a program designed to prevent wildfires — and how that had played into residents’ difficulty with evacuation orders.

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