By Alex Dobuzinskis
MONTECITO, Calif. (Reuters) – Rescuers in southern California on Friday looking for as many as 43 people feared dead or trapped by this week’s deadly mudslides have expanded the area they are searching and told residents that they might need to stay away for weeks.
Triggered by heavy rains, the massive slides struck before dawn on Tuesday. Walls of mud and debris cascaded down hillsides that were denuded last month by wildfires, including the Thomas Fire, the largest blaze in the state’s history.
At least 17 people died in the slides and officials late on Thursday raised to 43 the number of missing people they were searching for, from eight earlier in the day, and warned that finding more survivors in the thick brown mud was becoming unlikely.
“Realistically we suspect we are going to have the discovery of more people killed in this incident,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said at a Thursday news briefing, adding that he was hoping to find “miracle” survivors.
He noted the possibility that some of the people listed as missing may not be in the area and may not have checked in with friends, or realize that they are listed as missing.
County officials ordered residents in most of the southeastern corner of Montecito, an unincorporated community east of the city of Santa Barbara, out of their homes for what they said was likely to be one or two weeks to aid the search and recovery efforts.
“We need people out, because they’re really hampering our efforts for not only the rescue, but for the cleanup,” said Santa Barbara County Fire Department spokeswoman Amber Anderson in a Friday phone interview.
In one of the worst-hit areas of Montecito, mud blew through doors and windows to fill the interiors of houses with muck and debris. The walls at one end of a home had completely disappeared, leaving its roof hanging precariously.
Downed power lines wrapped around trees at one property, while elsewhere the lines dropped almost to the ground. Elsewhere, cars were perched on mounds of earth and garage doors that had been caved in rested at odd angles. Tree trunks and branches were strewn everywhere and boulders littered people’s front yards.
The area, northwest of Los Angeles, is home to many celebrities and wealthy Californians, who relish its sense of seclusion and relative proximity to the city.
The cause of death for all 17 victims who perished will be listed as multiple traumatic injuries resulting from flash floods with mudslides, the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s office said in a statement on Thursday.
The dead range in age from 3 to 89.
Rescue workers in helicopters and high-wheeled military vehicles, some with search dogs, were deployed in the hunt for the missing.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency granted a request on Thursday by Governor Jerry Brown for expanded financial aid that was first allocated for the Thomas Fire, the governor’s office said in a statement.
Residents of the slide-hit area were assessing damaged homes, with some grateful that their properties survived.
“We have a yard to redo and hopefully our insurance will help out with that, but the people across from me, newer homes, gone,” said Garrett Speirs, a 54-year-old artist who has been living in Montecito for 20 years.
“Everybody down below gone, two girls gone,” Speirs said. “Two sixth graders in the school our kids went to.”
(Additional reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver, Chris Kenning in Chicago, Gina Cherelus and Peter Szekely in New York; Writing by Scott Malone and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Catherine Evans and Steve Orlofsky)