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 500 miles to the north forced residents to abandon their homes.
The Mosquito Fire burning 110 miles 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 erratic and intensely.”
The blaze was one of three large fires in the state.
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.
Sherwin said crews were searching for one missing person.
Residents who tried to return home found it tough going in the sticky mess.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Perla Halbert, whose feet were caked in mud after trying to walk to her home. “If you try and take two steps, you get submerged. You just get stuck.”
Halbert had been out of town and returned to her Oak Glen home late Monday to find the driveway covered with a few inches of mud. Her family stayed the night with family members and returned after first light to discover several feet of mud and a fence washed away.
Her husband went to buy boots and coveralls before trekking through the muck to assess the damage.
“There’s lots of rocks and so much mud. But hopefully the house itself is OK,” she said.
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 20 miles (32 kilometers) south.