By THOMAS FULLER
SAN FRANCISCO – Rescue workers scoured mud-swollen riverbeds in the wealthy Southern California enclave of Montecito on Wednesday, clutching to the hope they might find some of the more than a dozen people missing after mudslides swept away about 100 houses.
At least 17 people were killed in mud flows so powerful that some one-story ranch homes in the area, which is northwest of Los Angeles were covered up to their gutters. The devastation, sudden and violent, struck early Tuesday after a winter storm drenched and destabilized hillsides stripped bare last month by the largest wildfire in California history.
“Hundreds of people have been rescued and evacuated, many of them having to be hoisted out of the area by our aircraft,” Bill Brown, the Santa Barbara County sheriff, said Wednesday afternoon.
After surveying the affected area by aircraft, the sheriff said it was “very stunning to see the extent of the devastation, to see the breadth of the area that has impacted so terribly by this.”
Authorities said 28 people were injured, four of them critically. At least 300 houses were damaged in the Montecito area and many more were listed by the authorities as “threatened.”
“We are still in the hopeful, optimistic mode that we can find survivors,” said Mike Eliason, a spokesman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, which has rescued six people since the hillsides gave way.
Canine units worked their way along the Montecito and San Ysidro creeks, where a large number of houses were swept away. The area near the creeks was the most treacherous, Eliason said, as creeks swelled with the sudden torrents of water mixed with ash from the fires, rocks and dirt.
“Some single-story homes were obliterated, just wiped off the foundation,” he said. “Others had holes blown through from boulders.”
The mud also hid some dangers from rescue workers.
“We’ve gotten multiple reports of rescuers falling through manholes that were covered with mud, swimming pools that were covered up with mud,” Anthony Buzzerio, a Los Angeles County fire battalion chief, told The Associated Press. “The mud is acting like a candy shell on ice cream. It’s crusty on top but soft underneath, so we’re having to be very careful.”
Five highways remained closed Wednesday, including rural, two-lane roads, said Tim Weisberg, a spokesman for the California Department of Transportation. The main north-south roadway, the 101 Freeway, will be closed until at least Monday.
“There are some portions that look like a riverbed,” Weisberg said of the 101. “It’s a mixture of dirt, debris, boulders, rocks. In some areas it can be 6 inches or a foot deep.”
Ron Werft, president of Cottage Health, a hospital in Santa Barbara that has treated those injured in the mudslides, said the hospital had to shuttle personnel by boat and by air as a result of the closing of the 101, a crucial north-south artery.
Under blue skies Wednesday, rescue workers made progress, clearing roads that had trapped residents in the area around Romero Canyon, northeast of Montecito. But the longer-term consequences were also becoming evident, including damage to water mains and smaller pipes that provide the area with water.
“We have no water currently in storage,” said Nick Turner, general manager of the Montecito Water District.
The water district instructed those residents still receiving tap water to boil it before using it for cooking or drinking.
Using bulldozers and other heavy equipment, workers cleared trees, boulders, downed power lines, household items and building material that had been swept onto the roads.
“A little bit of everything you could imagine, including a kitchen sink,” Eliason said. “Literally a kitchen sink was found.”
Among the dead was Roy Rohter, 84, said Michael Van Hecke, a friend and the headmaster of St. Augustine Academy, a classical Catholic school Rohter founded in nearby Ventura. Van Hecke said he learned of his friend’s death from Rohter’s daughter.
“He was a real scrapper, an entrepreneur,” Van Hecke said. “He bootstrapped himself all the way up to a very successful life.”
The mudslide also injured Rohter’s wife, Theresa, at their home in Montecito.
Amber Anderson, a spokeswoman for the joint recovery effort, which involves 14 helicopters and nearly 500 personnel – including firefighters and emergency workers from several counties – said the affected area was nearly 20,000 acres.
Among those who were reported missing Tuesday were the father of a boy who was swept hundreds of yards downstream, and the father of a sailor stationed in Hawaii.
Montecito is home to mansions owned by celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres, but most of the damage occurred to more modest homes in the flatlands.
The wreckage of the downpour, coming so soon after the wildfires, was not a coincidence but a direct result of the charred lands, left vulnerable to quickly forming mudslides. The wildfires, known as the Thomas Fire, burned over 280,000 acres last month spanning Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, and became California’s largest on record. The area has not received significant rain since last spring.
“I think most people are really shocked at the extent of the damage and how big the impact was to the area,” Brown said in a television interview. “Although we knew that this was coming, you couldn’t help but be amazed at the intensity of the storm.”