‘Window closing’ for California mudslide searchers as death toll rises to 18

MONTECITO, Calif. (Reuters) – Rescue crews expanded their search on Friday for five missing people as the death toll rose to 18 from mudslides in Southern California that damaged hundreds of buildings and caked highways with sludge.

About 1,250 emergency workers raced against the clock to find survivors with drones, heavy equipment and sniffer dogs in the rescue and clean-up efforts, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services said.

The latest victim, 87-year-old Joseph Bleckel, was found in his Montecito home on Friday, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said, adding that the remaining missing were between the ages of 2 and 30.

“We’ve got a window that’s closing, but we’re still very optimistic. There’s been plenty of cases where they’ve found people a week after,” Santa Barbara County Fire Department spokesman Mike Eliason said earlier on a muddy Montecito street especially hard-hit by the mudslide.

Officials said secondary searches of damaged structures were under way.

The number of missing has fluctuated as people were located, said the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office. Authorities said on Thursday night that 43 people were unaccounted for.

Residents in some areas were subject to a new mandatory evacuation on Friday, emergency officials said, adding the unstable environment remained a threat.

Triggered by heavy rains, the massive slides struck before dawn on Tuesday. Walls of mud and debris cascaded down hillsides stripped of trees and shrubs by last month’s wildfires, including the Thomas Fire, the largest blaze in the state’s history.

EXHAUSTED CREWS

Excavators carrying rescuers in their buckets plowed through mud-coated roads in search of the missing after some areas were buried in as much as 15 feet (4.6 m) of mud, emergency officials said.

Crews begin clean-up efforts of Highway 101 after mudslides cause extensive damage to hundreds of buildings and caked highways with sludge, in Montecito, California, U.S., January…

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