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At least six people killed in Montecito mudslides were in voluntary evacuation zones; 11 others on border

At least six people killed in Montecito mudslides were in voluntary evacuation zones; 11 others on border
Margaret Stewart, with the Los Angeles Fire Department, watches as her dog, Veya, searches through the devastation in Montecito, Calif. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

At least six of the 21 people killed in the devastating mudslides in Montecito nearly two weeks ago were in voluntary evacuation zones, while 11 others were along the border of the voluntary and mandatory evacuation areas, authorities said Sunday.

Four people who died were swept away from neighborhoods under mandatory evacuation orders, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told reporters at a Sunday afternoon news conference.

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It was not immediately clear if the victims who lived along the border were in the mandatory or voluntary zone.

The revelations heighten concerns over how authorities decided which neighborhoods to evacuate and how residents were notified about the impending danger.

Two people — 2-year-old Lydia Sutthithepa and 17-year-old John "Jack" Cantin — are still missing. One was in a home on East Valley Road that sits on the border of the two zones, while the other was in a voluntary evacuation area.

"It's very possible that they could be underneath a significant amount of mud that is drying and ultimately has to be removed," Brown said of those still unaccounted for. "And it is still also very possible that they — one or more of them — could have been swept out to sea."

Search teams have combed through some areas as many as eight times — at least three times in the last two days alone. Dogs trained to detect human remains and their handlers have scoured debris piles up to 20 feet high and 40 feet wide, sometimes in waist-deep mud, Brown said.

"They are extremely tenacious," Brown said.

Crews recovered the bodies of the victims along three watercourses, Brown said. One person was found dead adjacent to Romero Creek, while four others lost their lives along San Ysidro Creek.

The remaining 16 victims were found along the Montecito Creek watercourse, which Brown said was "by far struck the hardest."

Some areas are still inaccessible to search crews, who must wait for the ground to dry out, Brown said.

The day before the storm hit on Jan. 9, authorities spent hours roving the community's foothill neighborhoods, trying to persuade people living near fire-ravaged slopes to leave.

About 7,000 people living north of Highway 192 were under mandatory evacuation orders.

Voluntary orders were issued for 23,000 others as the storm approached. Residents in those areas were not visited by sheriff's deputies, officials have said.

The death toll increased to 21 Saturday morning after search crews recovered the body of 28-year-old Faviola Benitez Calderon.

Benitez Calderon is the fourth member of her family confirmed to have died in the mudslide, caused by heavy rain on hillsides destabilized by the Thomas fire, the largest in state history.

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"This family has lost so much, and we wish them our best as they face the difficult journey of trying to move forward without their loved ones," Brown said.

Twitter: @AleneTchek

UPDATES:

11:05 p.m.: This article was updated to reflect that it was not clear whether the victims who lived along the border were in the mandatory or voluntary evacuation area.

This article was originally published at 6:55 p.m.

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