MOUNT BALDY, Calif. — When the skies opened up with a vengeance, Michael Honer had a front row seat to the powerful forces of Mother Nature.
In a house overlooking Bear Creek in the tiny town of Mount Baldy, he watched the stream flow for the first time in two years. At first, it carried only leaves. By the time the rain stopped an hour later, the flow had carried away logs, rocks and even cars, sweeping a driver to his death.
"The stream was a raging black torrent of debris and big logs and muddy, silty water," Honer said Monday as he shoveled mud outside a friend's house above the creek. "It was apocalyptic."
Flash floods in the Southern California mountains Sunday afternoon stranded thousands of people, destroyed several cars and damaged about 30 homes, including a dozen that were uninhabitable in the tiny communities of Mount Baldy and Forest Falls.
Roads to both places were ruled by bulldozers and other heavy equipment working under sunny skies Monday to clear mud and rocky debris. Crews were assessing damage and determining whether water was safe to drink in Mount Baldy.
Downpours punctuated with thunder and lightning dumped nearly 5 inches on Mount Baldy and as much as 3½ inches on Forest Falls some 50 miles away, the National Weather Service said.
Those who witnessed the flash flooding up close described a roar as waters surged down the mountains.
George Smith of San Diego had been hiking up Mount San Gorgonio with a friend when they came to a wash that had been dry earlier in the day.
"We were just kind of deciding should we make a go of it, to cross or not, when there was a 10-foot high wall of water and debris and logs coming toward us," he said. "It sounded like thunder coming down the river. Me and my friend had to scramble up a cliff to get out of the way of it."
He and 12 other hikers huddled together and called 911. When the operator asked for a cross street they had to explain that they were in the forest. They found shelter with a woman who lives near Forest Falls and lit a fire in her fireplace to let them dry out.
Nearly 2,500 people, including a group of about 500 campers who spent the night at a community center near Forest Falls were stranded in the wooded communities until roads reopened Monday.
San Bernardino County resources were stretched thin by the storm. Scores of swift-water rescue teams and fire engines had been dispatched to far-flung areas, county Fire Capt. Josh Wilkins said. In the Angeles National Forest, a group of four or five people and a dog were airlifted to safety.
A white Toyota Prius where one driver died was wedged in Bear Creek among boulders and a log. The windshield was shattered and the car was choked with dirt. Coroner's officials identified the victim as Joo Hwan Lee, 48, of El Segundo.
Angela Batistelli said she had returned home with groceries to find Lee parked in her driveway. Hikers heading up 10,068-foot Mount San Antonio, also known as Mount Baldy, frequently park there and she asked the driver to move along.
Rain was falling hard when she carried some bags up to her house perched on stilts. She saw the Prius down the street; its taillights were surrounded by water and then it was gone in the roar of water filling the canyon.
Batistelli's car, a Toyota Echo, also washed away. It was found sticking straight up, its front end buried in the silt-filled streambed. Her 250-gallon propane tank was torn from the house and skipped down the street.