At least 19 people are dead and five remain missing after heavy rains pounded Southern California, unleashing mudflows in areas ravaged by wildfires last month.

As the death toll in the Montecito mudslides increased today, officials announced that the 101 Freeway will remain closed indefinitely.

Meanwhile, portraits of the victims are beginning to emerge.

A veteran of tragedies from 9/11 to Katrina, one firefighter counts herself blessed to be able to help during one more

Los Angeles firefighter Hollyn Bullock. (Louis Sahagun / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles firefighter Hollyn Bullock. (Louis Sahagun / Los Angeles Times)

In the 27 years since joining the Los Angeles Fire Department, Hollyn Bullock has reported for search-and-rescue duty for tragedies like the World Trade Center terrorist attack in New York, Hurricane Katrina and the deadly train derailment in Chatsworth that claimed 25 lives.

On Friday, the veteran firefighter joined a team scouring through the wreckage of the latest disaster. Seventeen people were dead after mudslides tore through the Santa Barbara County community of Montecito. At least five remained missing.

And so, along a sodden, debris-tangled corner just east of the 101 Freeway, Bullock and others searched on.

“Honestly, I feel fulfilled, even blessed to have been given the opportunity to get in there and help people in times of crisis,” she said as fellow firefighters hosed contaminated mud off her boots and pant legs.

She was part of a team of 26 men and one woman: herself. 

The team tried to sound an optimistic note – hoping for the best, bracing for the worst – as they used an arsenal of tools, technology and specially trained dogs to probe debris piles more than 15 feet deep near the corner of Creekside Road and Sheffield Drive. 

“It’s as exhausting, frustrating and tedious as looking for a needle in a haystack,” Battalion Chief Mark Akahoshi said, while hunched over a topographical map of surrounding terrain studded with ranches and mansions offering panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean.

Nodding appreciatively toward team members tramping knee deep through mud contaminated with pesticides and sewage, he said, “Take a look at the dedication on the faces of these guys. They’re in it for as long as it takes to finish the job and say, ‘That’s it. Done. We searched every inch.’ ”

Bullock, 55, plans to retire in the summer.

She joined the department in 1990, when women made up an even smaller fraction of the firefighting force.

“It was my father who suggested I become a firefighter. But sometimes I feel I was born to be one,” she said. “I can bore you to tears with stories about comradery, hard, dirty team work and helping folks out of the worst trouble of their lives.”

“So, yes, I’m bowing out in summer,” she added with a smile as fire trucks roared past. “But there are other women firefighters joining up even as I speak, and this won’t be the last disaster of this scale. I can guarantee that.”

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