Most of mud­slide-stricken Cal­i­for­nia town told to leave

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - NATION - By Krysta Fau­ria and Brian Mel­ley

MON­TECITO, CALIF. >> Most res­i­dents of mud­slide-rav­aged Mon­tecito were un­der or­ders to clear out Fri­day as the search for vic­tims dragged on and crews la­bored to clean up mas­sive de­bris and re­pair power, water and gas lines.

Even those who didn’t lose their homes in the dis­as­ter that left at least 18 peo­ple dead were told to leave for up to two weeks so they wouldn’t in­ter­fere with the res­cue and re­cov­ery op­er­a­tion.

It was another frus­trat­ing turn for those liv­ing in the South­ern Cal­i­for­nia town that has been sub­ject to re­peated evac­u­a­tion or­ders in re­cent weeks, first be­cause of a mon­ster wild­fire last month, then be­cause of down­pours and mud­slides.

Cia Mon­roe said her fam­ily was lucky their home wasn’t ru­ined and they were all healthy and safe, though her daugh­ter lost one of her best friends.

But Mon­roe said it was stress­ful af­ter evac­u­at­ing three times dur­ing the wild­fire to be pack­ing up a fourth time.

More than 1,200 work­ers tak­ing part in the search and cleanup ef­fort flooded into the town with a pop­u­la­tion of about 9,000.

Cu­ri­ous and con­cerned cit­i­zens who had trudged through the mud Thurs­day to view the dev­as­ta­tion were nowhere to be seen as more fire­fight­ers in bright yel­low rain gear searched me­thod­i­cally and util­ity crews in or­ange safety vests worked with chain saws and jack­ham­mers.

A back­hoe scooped up mud and rocks around buck­led and flat­tened homes, while bull­doz­ers cleared roads of tan­gled trees, muck and boul­ders. Tanker trucks were be­ing used to haul off flood­wa­ters sucked up from U.S. High­way 101, the crip­pled coastal route con­nect­ing Santa Bar­bara to Ventura.

Santa Bar­bara County Sher­iff

Bill Brown said res­i­dents who had stayed be­hind or tried to check on dam­age in neigh­bor­hoods where homes were lev­eled and car-size boul­ders blocked roads and lit­tered prop­er­ties had hin­dered the re­cov­ery ef­fort.

On Thurs­day, Brown ex­panded what was known as the pub­lic safety ex­clu­sion zone to in­cor­po­rate most of the town. That meant even those who had stayed be­hind would have to leave and those who en­tered the zone would be sub­ject to ar­rest.

Res­cuers were busy Fri­day prob­ing thick muck, swollen creeks and tan­gled trees with poles in search of seven miss­ing peo­ple while dogs sniffed for bod­ies.

A crew found the body of the 18th vic­tim, Joseph Bleckel, 87, be­fore noon in his home near

Romero Canyon, Brown said.

Drench­ing rain that un­leashed the deadly tor­rents man­aged to fi­nally con­tain the largest wild­fire in state his­tory, which burned for weeks above Mon­tecito and stripped the steep hills of veg­e­ta­tion, mak­ing it prone to mud­slides.

The U.S. For­est Ser­vice an­nounced Fri­day that the fire that burned 440 square miles was fully con­tained.

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