Nature is capricious and chaotic. Remote and random events sometimes combine to produce cataclysmic forces of destruction. Tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, avalanches and floods exact a toll on those caught in the fist of fate. Some victims make poor decisions or fatal mistakes; others are simply caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Thirty years ago, a landslide-induced torrent of water-infused debris burst out of Ophir Creek Canyon. Ophir Creek drains the east slope of the Sierra Nevada near Slide Mountain in Western Nevada. When the raging wall of destruction hit the small community at the mouth of the canyon on that warm, sunny Memorial Day Monday in 1983, it already had the momentum of a runaway locomotive. Professional firefighter Reed W. Dopf was an eyewitness to the freak flashflood caused by an upstream rockslide. He stated: “As it came out of the canyon, it was just volatile. It looked exactly like opening a fire hydrant. It was that much turbulence. It was that much motion.”
Tom Reed, his wife Linda, and three companions, Joseph Valenzuela, Tim Miller and John Burruel, were working on the Reed house when the 30-foot-high, 200-foot-wide flood surged toward them. All five ran for their lives, but the wall of destruction came on so fast that Miller made it only 20 feet before he was over-taken and swept up by the flood. Burruel tripped and fell to the ground shortly after exiting the building. Glancing up he saw the house moving toward him. “About that time it looked like a huge bulldozer was pushing stuff down the hill. It was picking up 40- and 50-foot long pine trees right out of the ground like they were toothpicks,” he later recalled.
The unstoppable flow slammed two parked trucks together nearly pinning and crushing Burruel between them. He later recounted what happened: “The right front tire rolled on my back and I couldn’t breathe. Then another wave of mud washed it off me, but when it did, the truck swirled to my left and I went further under it and it pinned my leg.”
Reed, who had been the first out of the house, looked back and realized that his house was racing along with him — and gaining. But, Reed kept running and managed to avoid being caught in the maelstrom. Once the peak surge had receded back into the normal flood plain of the creek, Reed noted numerous flood-deposited boulders, the wreckage of his home and various vehicles scattered about in topsy-turvy angles. Ominously, he couldn’t see any of his friends, or his wife.
Urgent shouts of fear suddenly attracted Tom Reed’s attention to Tim Miller, whom he carefully extricated out of the slowly solidifying mud. Miller was seriously hurt, but still able to stumble down the hill for help. Reed soon discovered John Burruel trapped in the quagmire beneath a pickup truck. Grabbing a tire jack from the back of the pickup, Reed quickly jacked the truck up and pulled Burruel to safety. Continuing to search for his missing wife, Reed grimaced when he came upon the body of his friend Joseph Valenzuela, who had tragically lost his race with fate.
Linda Reed also had been overtaken by the rampaging flood, caught in the fine-grained, muddy, matrix fluid that had poured out of the Ophir Creek canyon following the initial boulder-laden surge. The slurry of mud and sand swept her along as it drained toward the northeast away from the main creek channel. The mud-choked flow flushed Linda around the north side of the mound to which her husband had safely escaped, and swept her into a neighbor’s backyard. Dazed, caked with mud, and badly bruised, she managed to walk down to Old Highway 395 where she obtained medical assistance.
Other homes built on the alluvial fan at the mouth of Ophir Creek canyon were destroyed or damaged in the flood, but amazingly, there were no additional fatalities. Helicopters were used to evacuate some of the injured to a Reno hospital and helped rescue trapped livestock. Considering the sunny hot weather and suddenness of the rampage, it is a small miracle that there were not more victims caught by the violent flood.
The death of 36-year-old Joe Valenzuela was a deep loss to the community. He was a Gardnerville pastor at Calvary Chapel of Carson Valley and the father of six children. As word of the disaster spread, there was a tremendous outpouring of support. Carson Valley residents donated money while a doctor, dentist, mechanic and chiropractor donated their services to the family indefinitely.
The situation could have been much worse. Joe’s wife, Pat, and all their children had planned to picnic at the house that Valenzuela, John Burruel and Tim Miller were helping Tom and Linda Reed rebuild. Fortunately, Joe Valenzuela’s parents called and invited the children to go swimming instead, which most likely spared the family greater loss.
The landslide was a composite of three interrelated and nearly simultaneous mass movements – rock slump, rockfall avalanche and debris avalanche. The slide probably resulted from the combined influences of gravitational force, weak joint-and-fracture surfaces within the mountain’s bedrock, and hydraulic imbalances caused by ground-water movement due to rapid melt of that winter’s near record snowpack. The 1983 flood caused $2 million in damages. Statistically, it was a rare event with an estimated magnitude about 25 times greater than that predicted for a 100-year flood.
Ophir Creek and the southeastern slopes of appropriately named Slide Mountain have been subjected to catastrophic landslides and associated flooding for thousands of years. The most recent landslide and flood of 1983 were small in comparison to at least nine prehistoric events and the local geologic setting of the landscape all favor repetition of these types of catastrophes in the future.
The 1983 event, which was witnessed by at least 20 people, gave scientists an opportunity to document and assess an important hydro-geological event, and served as a reminder that the seemingly serene mountain landscape we love can suddenly be transformed into a scene of unimaginable chaos and destruction.
Special thanks to Patrick A. Glancy, U.S. Geological Survey, for his generous assistance in the preparation of this story.
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. You can reach him at [email protected] Check out his blog tahoenuggets.com.