Hope fades for those still buried by Montecito mudslide

At least 18 people have died in the Montecito mudslides and seven people were still unaccounted for Friday, as hope waned that any survivors remained amid muck, boulders and toppled trees.

Rescuers continued to dig through the tangled wreckage of vehicles and homes, searching for human remains or survivors. Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said crews had found another victim, 87-year-old Joseph Francis Bleckel, in his home in the Romero Canyon area about 11:30 a.m. Friday.

Bleckel had previously been listed as missing. The number missing has fluctuated widely in the aftermath of heavy rains that pounded the Thomas fire burn scar this week and unleashed a torrent of mud, boulders and debris that destroyed scores of homes:

Authorities had said late Thursday that roughly 43 people were unaccounted, but many of them have since been reported safe, according to Chris Elms, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. As of Friday evening, Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s officials had identified seven people who were still missing.

Elms said crews are still trying to fight their way through roadways made inaccessible by mudflow in the hopes of locating more people. Officials expanded mandatory evacuation zones Thursday because pedestrians and traffic were hindering rescue and repair operations.

Brown said that armored vehicles typically used by his SWAT team on barricaded suspects have been useful in reaching muddy areas where people were trapped. Most who had been stranded in their homes have been rescued, he said, including about 300 residents and staff members who were evacuated by rescue workers Thursday from the Casa Dorinda retirement home east of Olive Mill Road.

A Los Angeles Fire Department search and rescue team tried to sound an optimistic note — hoping for the best, bracing for the worst. Members used an arsenal of tools, technology and specially trained dogs to probe piles of debris more than 15 feet deep at the southern end of Romero Creek.

“It’s as exhausting, frustrating and tedious as looking for a needle in a haystack,” LAFD 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.

Highway 101, which had been tentatively scheduled to reopen on Monday, will be closed indefinitely, said Capt. Cindy Pontes of the California Highway Patrol. As of Friday evening, the highway was closed to northbound traffic from the Ventura-Santa Barbara county line to South Milpas Street in Santa Barbara, and closed to southbound traffic from South Milpas Street to Padaro Lane near Summerland.

Crews are working day and night to clear the road, but as they pump water away from the highway, more flows in, Pontes said.

Pontes said she flew over the 101 in a helicopter on Friday, and almost a mile of it was under water so deep that the center divider was not visible. More rain is expected at the end of next week.

Route 192, which cuts across the foothills of Montecito, is also unsafe to travel in places, and officials are trying to establish an alternate route as soon as possible, she said.

A Montecito Water District official said the water in all of Montecito remains unsafe to drink. Workers are replacing fire hydrants and reconnecting water mains across creeks that were wiped out, but it is unknown when the system can be restarted, she said.

In the meantime, some residents have low pressure from their taps, and others have no water at all.

On Friday, Montecito Creek was back to its usual trickle amid a scene of destruction. Where the key artery of East Valley Road crosses the creek, houses had gaping holes in their sides. A white clapboard structure was wedged in the branches of a tree. Workers rushed to cut off the gas supply in the neighborhood amid worries about dangerous leaks.

Carla Flynn, who lives along East Valley Road, spent Thursday morning shoveling mud as thick as peanut butter at the foot of her driveway. “I’m incredibly grateful to be alive,” she said.

When the storm hit, the sky lit up after tumbling rocks crashed into a gas line and ignited a fire in the hills. Mud pooled on the main thoroughfare outside her driveway, effectively trapping her family inside. They had decided not to evacuate, she said, because they were so far from the burn area.

Flynn is used to torrents of water gushing by — her property is alongside a creek — but nothing like this, she said. “I heard this crackling, like an ungodly crackling. Walls, fences breaking,” she said.

Her daughter has friends who are among the missing. Prominent community members have perished.

“You never think that it could happen here. This is such a sacred little oasis,” Flynn said.

Times staff writer Emily Alpert Reyes contributed to this report.

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