Rescuers searched for a person missing in a mudslide Tuesday as big yellow tractors plowed through dark, thick sludge and pushed boulders off roads after flash floods swept dirt, rocks and trees down fire-scarred slopes, washed away cars and buried buildings in small mountain communities in Southern California.
With thunderstorms forecast and more mudslides possible into Wednesday, evacuation orders remained in place in parts of the San Bernardino Mountains while a wildfire raging 805 kilometers to the north forced residents to abandon their homes.
East of Los Angeles, crews searched street by street for people who might be trapped by mudflows that washed rocks, trees and other debris with astonishing force the day before into Forest Falls, Oak Glen and Yucaipa and left a muddy mess and untold destruction.
Homes and other buildings were damaged, including a commercial building buried so high its roof collapsed, said Eric Sherwin, spokesperson for the San Bernardino County Fire Department.
“We have boulders that moved through that weigh multiple tons,” Sherwin said. “It could take days just to find all the cars that are missing because they are completely covered by mud.”
A video showed a slow-moving black river of sludge rolling past the sign for the Oak Glen Steakhouse and Saloon followed seconds later by a surging wave of deeper mud carrying logs. The mud appeared to be head-high in places the next day.
Officials lifted some mandatory evacuation and shelter in place orders Tuesday evening.
Workers were able to clear most of Valley of the Falls Drive — the only road to Forests Falls — and teams were assessing damage. Other major roads in the San Bernardino Mountains were reopened.
For some homes in Forest Falls, it was too late to evacuate Monday. Residents were told to shelter in place through the night because it was safer than venturing out.
The rains were the remnants of a tropical storm that brought high winds and some badly needed rainfall to drought-stricken Southern California last week, helping firefighters largely corral the Fairview Fire that had been burning out of control about 32 kilometers south of the mudslides.
The mud flows and flash flooding occurred in parts of the San Bernardino Mountains where there are burn scars — areas where there is little vegetation to hold the soil — from the 2020 wildfires.
“All of that dirt turns to mud and starts slipping down the mountain,” Sherwin said.
Crews battle wildfires
The powerful thunderstorms came after a week that saw California endure a record-long heatwave. Temperatures in many parts of the state rocketed past 38 C, and pushed the state’s electrical grid to the breaking point as air conditioners sucked up power.
The tropical storm helped crews battling the Fairview Fire about 121 kilometers southeast of Los Angeles. The 114-square-kilometer blaze was 62 percent contained by Tuesday. Two people died fleeing the fire, which destroyed at least 35 homes and other structures in Riverside County.
The Mosquito Fire burning 177 kilometers northeast of San Francisco erupted in the afternoon just hours after officials had reported making “great strides” in the battle.
“We have all hands on deck,” fire spokesperson Chris Valenzuela said as the fire burned near Todd Valley and Foresthill. “It’s burning very erratically and intensely.
Scientists say climate change has made the West warmer and drier over the last three decades and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive. In the last five years, California has experienced the largest and most destructive fires in its history.