Rescuers searched for a man who went missing in a landslide on Tuesday, when big yellow tractors plowed through the dark, thick mud and tossed boulders off roads after flash floods washed dirt, rocks and trees down fire-ravaged slopes, washed away cars and buried buildings in small mountain villages. in Southern California.
With thunderstorms forecast and possible more landslides on Wednesday, evacuation orders remained in place in parts of the San Bernardino Mountains, while a wildfire raging 500 miles (805 km) to the north forced residents to flee their homes.
A mosquito fire burning 110 miles (177 km) northeast of San Francisco broke out in the afternoon, just hours after officials reported “great gains” in the battle.
“We’ve got all hands on deck,” fire department spokesman Chris Valenzuela said as the fire raged near Todd Valley and Foresthill. “It burns very erratically and intensely.”
It was one of three major fires in the state.
East of Los Angeles, crews searched street after street looking for people who might be trapped in mudflows that had washed away rocks, trees, and other debris in Forest Falls, Oak Glen, and Yukaipu with astounding force the day before, leaving a filthy mess and incalculable destruction.
Homes and other buildings were damaged, including a commercial building buried so high that its roof collapsed, said Eric Sherwin, a spokesman for the San Bernardino County Fire Department.
“We have boulders that have been through this that weigh several tons,” Sherwin said. “It can take days to find all the missing cars because they are completely covered in mud.”
The video showed a slowly flowing black river of mud rolling past the Oak Glen Steakhouse and Saloon sign, followed seconds later by a rising wave of deeper mud carrying logs. Mud the next day seemed in places above the head.
Sherwin said crews are looking for one missing person.
Residents trying to return home had a hard time in the sticky mess.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Perla Halbert, whose feet were covered in mud after trying to walk home. “If you try to take two steps, you will drown. You’ll just get stuck.”
Hulbert left town and returned to her home in Oak Glen late Monday night to find the driveway covered in several inches of dirt. Her family stayed overnight with family members and returned at dawn to find several feet of dirt and a washed out fence.
Her husband went to buy boots and overalls before going on a mud hike to assess the damage.
“There are a lot of rocks and so much dirt. But I hope everything is in order with the house itself, ”she said.
On Tuesday evening, officials canceled some mandatory evacuation and shelter orders.
Workers were able to clear most of Valley of the Falls Drive—the only road to Forests Falls—and teams were assessing the damage. Other major roads in the San Bernardino Mountains were reopened.
For some homes in Forest Falls, it was too late to evacuate on Monday. Residents were told to stay put all night because it was safer than going outside.
The rains were the remnants of a tropical storm that brought high winds and some much-needed rainfall to drought-hit Southern California last week, helping firefighters largely contain the Fairview fire, which blew out of control about 20 miles (32 km) to south of the landslide.
Mudflows and flash floods have occurred in parts of the San Bernardino Mountains where fire scars — areas with little soil-holding vegetation — from the 2020 wildfires remain.
“All this mud turns to mud and starts to slide down the mountain,” Sherwin said.
One of the 2020 fires, the Eldorado fire, was caused by a smoke device used by a couple to determine the sex of their baby. A firefighter died and the couple were charged with manslaughter.
Landslides occurred about 175 miles (280 km) east of Montecito, where massive debris flows killed more than 20 people and destroyed hundreds of homes in January 2018, a month after a massive wildfire scorched the hillsides.
About 40 miles (64 kilometers) to the west, San Bernardino State of California reopened on Tuesday, a day after the campus was closed when several buildings were flooded during heavy rains.
Severe thunderstorms have erupted after a week in which California experienced a record-breaking heat wave. Temperatures in many parts of the state soared above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) and pushed the state’s electrical grid to the breaking point as air conditioners squandered power. The Fairview Fire in Southern California and the Mosquito Fire east of Sacramento have flared up and out of control.
The tropical storm helped crews fight the Fairview fire about 75 miles (121 km) southeast of Los Angeles. By Tuesday, the 44-square-mile (114-square-kilometre) fire was 62 percent contained. Two people died fleeing a fire that destroyed at least 35 houses and other structures in Riverside County.
According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, the mosquito fire has grown to almost 79 square miles (about 204 square kilometers) with a 25 percent containment.
More than 11,000 people have been evacuated and nearly 6,000 structures are at risk, officials said.
Strengthening winds early Tuesday pushed out an inversion layer of smoke that quelled the flames and provided fresh oxygen to the fire, Valenzuela said. The area was full of extremely dry fuel that ignited quickly, creating difficulties for both firefighters on the ground and aircraft.
Scientists say climate change has made the West warmer and drier over the past three decades and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive. Over the past five years, California has experienced the largest and most destructive wildfires in its history.
(Weber reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press contributor Stephanie Dazio of Los Angeles contributed..)