Videos: Firefighters search for missing person after SoCal mudslides damage homes, move cars

"We have all hands on deck," fire spokesperson Chris Valenzuela said as the Mosquito Fire raged, storms were forecast and evacuation orders remained


UPDATE (9 a.m. CDT Sept. 14): 

Marcio Sanchez and Christopher Weber
Associated Press

OAK GLEN, Calif. — 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.

Emergency crews ride along a mud-covered road in the aftermath of a mudslide Tuesday in Oak Glen, Calif. Cleanup efforts and damage assessments are underway east of Los Angeles after heavy rains unleashed mudslides in a mountain area scorched by a wildfire two years ago.
Emergency crews ride along a mud-covered road in the aftermath of a mudslide Tuesday in Oak Glen, Calif. Cleanup efforts and damage assessments are underway east of Los Angeles after heavy rains unleashed mudslides in a mountain area scorched by a wildfire two years ago. (Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

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 (805 kilometers) to the north forced residents to abandon their homes.

The Mosquito Fire burning 110 miles (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 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 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's 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.

One of the 2020 blazes, the El Dorado Fire, was sparked by a smoke device used by a couple to reveal their baby's gender. A firefighter died, and the couple was charged with involuntary manslaughter.

The mudslides occurred about 175 miles (280 kilometers) east of Montecito, where enormous debris flows killed more than 20 people and destroyed hundreds of homes in January 2018, a month after a huge wildfire scorched hillsides.

About 40 miles (64 kilometers) west, Cal State San Bernardino reopened Tuesday, a day after the campus was closed when several buildings were flooded during heavy rains.

The powerful thunderstorms came after a week that saw California endure a record-long heatwave.

Temperatures in many parts of the state rocketed past 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius), and pushed the state's electrical grid to the breaking point as air conditioners sucked up power. The Fairview Fire in Southern California and the Mosquito Fire burning east of Sacramento broke out and raged out of control.

The tropical storm aided crews battling the Fairview Fire about 75 miles (121 kilometers) southeast of Los Angeles. The 44-square-mile (114-square-kilometer) blaze was 62% contained by Tuesday. Two people died fleeing the fire, which destroyed at least 35 homes and other structures in Riverside County.

The Mosquito Fire has grown to nearly 79 square miles (nearly 204 square kilometers), with 25% containment, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire.

More than 11,000 people have been evacuated and nearly 6,000 structures are threatened — an increase in both figures as the blaze raged Tuesday near Foresthill and Todd Valley after a spot fire jumped the Middle Fork of the American River, officials said.

Increased winds earlier Tuesday pushed out a smoke -inversion layer that had been stifling the blaze and gave fresh oxygen to the flames, Valenzuela said. The area is full of extremely dry fuels that were rapidly igniting, challenging both firefighters on the ground and aircraft.

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.
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Weber reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press writer Stefanie Dazio in Los Angeles contributed.
 

This Monday afternoon image released by Caltrans District 8 shows mudslides that closed part of Highway SR-38 in the San Bernardino Mountains, Calif. The mudflows and flash flooding occurred in parts of the San Bernardino Mountains where there are burn scars, areas where there's little vegetation to hold the soil, from the 2020 wildfires.
This Monday afternoon image released by Caltrans District 8 shows mudslides that closed part of Highway SR-38 in the San Bernardino Mountains, Calif. The mudflows and flash flooding occurred in parts of the San Bernardino Mountains where there are burn scars, areas where there's little vegetation to hold the soil, from the 2020 wildfires. (Photo/Caltrans District 8/Associated Press)

UPDATE (2:50 p.m. CDT Sept. 13): 

Marcio Sanchez and Christopher Weber
Associated Press

OAK GLEN, Calif. — Cleanup efforts and damage assessments were underway Tuesday east of Los Angeles after heavy rains unleashed mudslides in a mountain area scorched by a wildfire two years ago, sending boulders across roads, carrying away cars and prompting evacuations and shelter-in-place orders.

Firefighters went street by street to make sure no residents were trapped after mudflows began inundating roads Monday night near the community of Forest Falls. Eric Sherwin, a spokesperson for the San Bernardino County Fire Department, said crews hadn't found anyone who needed to be rescued and no one was reported missing.

Multiple homes and other structures had varying levels of damage, Sherwin said, including a commercial building where the mud was so high it collapsed the roof. Rocks, dead trees and other debris surged down slopes with astonishing force in Forest Falls, Oak Glen and Yucaipa, he said.

"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."

Social media video from Oak Glen showed a torrent of mud racing down a hillside, across a road and into a restaurant parking lot.

Perla 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.

"I've never seen anything like this before," Halbert said. "If you try and take two steps, you get submerged. You just get stuck."

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.

Nearly 2 inches (5 centimeters) of rain fell on Yucaipa Ridge. Concerns about more thunderstorms Tuesday prompted authorities to keep about 2,000 homes in the San Bernardino Mountains communities under evacuation orders.

For some homes in Forest Falls, it was too late to evacuate Monday and 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 a wildfire that had been burning out of control about 20 miles (32 kilometers) south of the mudslides.

The mudflows and flash flooding occurred in parts of the San Bernardino Mountains where there are burn scars — areas where there's 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.

One of the 2020 blazes, the El Dorado Fire, was sparked by a smoke device used by a couple to reveal their baby's gender. A firefighter died and the couple was charged with involuntary manslaughter.

About 40 miles (64 kilometers) west, Cal State San Bernardino reopened Tuesday, a day after the campus was closed when several buildings were flooded during heavy rains.

The mudslides came after a week that saw California endure a record-long heatwave. Temperatures in many parts of the state rocketed past 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius), and pushed the state's electrical grid to the breaking point as air conditioners sucked up power. The Fairview Fire in Southern California and the Mosquito Fire burning east of Sacramento broke out and raged out of control.

The tropical storm aided crews battling the Fairview Fire about 75 miles (121 kilometers) southeast of Los Angeles. The 44-square-mile (114-square-kilometer) blaze was 62% contained by Tuesday. Two people died fleeing the fire, which destroyed at least 30 homes and other structures in Riverside County.

The Mosquito Fire has grown to 78 square miles (200 square kilometers), with 18% containment, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. While crews were able to take advantage of cooler temperatures and higher humidity to strengthen control lines, more than 5,800 structures in Placer and El Dorado counties remained under threat, and some 11,000 residents were under evacuation orders.

Smoky skies from wildfires in many areas of the West caused air quality to deteriorate Monday, with dangerous levels of particulate pollution detected by government and private monitors in portions of eastern Oregon and Washington, Northern California, central Idaho and western Montana. In some areas, people were told to avoid all outdoor activity until the pollution cleared.

In Washington, fire officials scrambled to secure resources for a blaze sparked Saturday in the remote Stevens Pass area that sent hikers fleeing and forced evacuations of mountain communities. As of Monday, the Bolt Creek Fire was 2% contained and had scorched nearly 12 square miles (31 square kilometers) of forestland about 65 miles (104 kilometers) northeast of Seattle. A larger incident management team and additional fire crews were slated to arrive Tuesday, officials said.

In Oregon, evacuations orders were eased near the 135-square-mile (349-square-kilometer) Cedar Creek Fire, which has burned for over a month across Lane and Deschutes counties south of Portland. Firefighters were protecting remote homes in Oakridge, Westfir and surrounding mountain communities. Sheriff's officials warned people to remain ready to leave at a moment's notice should conditions change.

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.
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Weber contributed to this report from Los Angeles.
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For more AP coverage of the climate and environment: https://apnews.com/hub/climate-and-environment
 

EARLIER:

Stefanie Dazio
Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — Thousands of residents were under evacuation and shelter-in-place orders early Tuesday after heavy rains unleashed mudslides in a mountain area east of Los Angeles that burned two years ago, sending boulders and other debris across roads.

Firefighters went street by street in the community of Forest Falls Monday night to make sure no residents were trapped. Eric Sherwin, a spokesperson for the San Bernardino County Fire Department, said crews hadn't found anyone who needed to be rescued and no one was reported missing. Crews would canvas the neighborhoods again and begin cleanup efforts after sunrise, he said.

"We're not gonna know the extent of things until we get to first light," Sherwin said before dawn Tuesday.

Many structures in the area had varying levels of damage, Sherwin said, including a commercial building where the mud was so high it collapsed the roof.

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 a wildfire that had been burning out of control about 20 miles (32 kilometers) south of the mudslides.

The mudflows and flash flooding occurred in parts of the San Bernardino Mountains where there are burn scars — areas where there's 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.

One of the wildfires, the El Dorado Fire, was sparked by a smoke device used by a couple to reveal their baby's gender. A firefighter died and the couple was charged with involuntary manslaughter.

Concerns about additional mud and debris flows Monday night prompted authorities to put 2,000 homes in the San Bernardino Mountain communities of Oak Glen and Forest Falls under evacuation orders after nearly 2 inches (5 centimeters) of rain fell on Yucaipa Ridge.

For some homes in Forest Falls, it was too late to evacuate and residents were told to shelter in place through the night because it was safer than venturing out.

"The roads are compromised or they're covered in debris," Sherwin said, adding that crews planned to work all night using heavy equipment to clear routes.

The mudslides came after a week that saw California endure a record-long heatwave. Temperatures in many parts of the state rocketed past 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius), and pushed the state's electrical grid to the breaking point as air conditioners sucked up power. The Fairview Fire in Southern California and the Mosquito Fire burning east of Sacramento broke out and raged out of control.

The tropical storm aided crews battling the Fairview Fire about 75 miles (121 kilometers) southeast of Los Angeles. The 44-square-mile (114-square-kilometer) blaze was 56% contained by late Monday. Two people died fleeing the fire, which destroyed at least 30 homes and other structures in Riverside County.

The Mosquito Fire has grown to 76 square miles (197 square kilometers), with 16% containment, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. While crews were able to take advantage of cooler temperatures and higher humidity Monday to strengthen control lines, more than 5,800 structures in Placer and El Dorado counties remained under threat, and some 11,000 residents were under evacuation orders.

Smoky skies from wildfires in many areas of the West caused air quality to deteriorate Monday, with dangerous levels of particulate pollution detected by government and private monitors in portions of eastern Oregon and Washington, Northern California, central Idaho and western Montana. In some areas, people were told to avoid all outdoor activity until the pollution cleared.


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In Washington, fire officials scrambled to secure resources for a blaze sparked Saturday in the remote Stevens Pass area that sent hikers fleeing and forced evacuations of mountain communities. As of Monday, the Bolt Creek Fire was 2% contained and had scorched nearly 12 square miles (31 square kilometers) of forestland about 65 miles (104 kilometers) northeast of Seattle. A larger incident management team and additional fire crews were slated to arrive Tuesday, officials said.

In Oregon, utility companies said Monday they restored power to tens of thousands of customers after shutting down service over the weekend to try to prevent wildfires during high winds, low humidity and hot temperatures.

Both Portland General Electric and Pacific Power enacted planned power shutoffs Friday amid the extreme fire danger. The utilities were concerned that the winds would cause live power lines to break or sag, making sparks that could ignite tinder-dry vegetation.

South of Portland, evacuation levels were reduced near the 135-square-mile (349-square-kilometer) Cedar Creek Fire, which has burned for over a month across Lane and Deschutes counties. Firefighters were protecting remote homes in Oakridge, Westfir and surrounding mountain communities. Sheriff's officials warned people to remain ready to leave at a moment's notice should conditions change.

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.
 

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