Rescuers searched this week for a person missing in a mudslide that swept boulders down fire-scarred slopes and damaged or destroyed 30 homes in the Southern California mountains as firefighters in the northern part of the state tried to contain an explosive week-old blaze.
Dogs aided the hunt for a person missing in a heavily damaged area of the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles where thunderstorms unleashed rocks, trees and earth that washed away cars, buried homes and affected 3,000 residents in two remote communities.
The force of mud barreling down the mountain late Monday drove a dumpster through the walls of the Oak Glen Steakhouse and Saloon. A massive tree lodged in the dining room, muck was waist-deep in the kitchen and wine bottles were slathered in mud.
“We have trees in there … 30 feet long that came straight through our building,” said Brandon Gallegos, whose family owns the restaurant. “It’s crushing.”
As the search, cleanup and damage assessment continued, firefighters in Northern California tried to tamp down a fire that flared up Tuesday, jumped a fork of the American River and forced evacuations of more than 11,000 people and threatened nearly 6,000 structures.
The muddy damage in Oak Glen and Forest Falls served as a powerful warning to areas burning or facing high fire danger of the damage wildfires can cause months or years after flames are doused.
Before the slides, nearly 2 inches of rain fell on slopes burned in the deadly El Dorado Fire that was sparked two years ago by a couple using a smoke device to reveal their baby’s gender. The couple was charged with involuntary manslaughte r in the death of a firefighter.
“The mud and debris flow came down through the high steep terrain,” said Jim Topeleski, a San Bernardino County fire chief. “This entire area is blanketed with up to 6 feet of mud, debris, large boulders.”
An intense amount of rain even over a short period of time can have catastrophic effects on hillsides where fire has stripped vegetation that once held the ground intact.
In January 2018, mudslides thundered down a steep mountainside that burned a month earlier and killed more than 20 people in the tony beachside town of Montecito near Santa Barbara. The worst of the rain fell in a 15-minute span with Montecito getting little more than a half-inch in five minutes.
Topelski said mudslides had been a concern in the area since the El Dorado Fire as they prepared for possible damage.
Gallegos said officials warned them of the potential for a slide after the fire, so they were dismayed but not surprised.
“We were just hoping and praying that it wouldn’t happen, but it did happen,” he said.
Evacuation orders remained in two areas over possible mudslides as well as to help workers clear roads buried in muck and restore water and power.
The burst of rain followed a rare tropical storm that ended a lengthy heat wave across the state last week. While the relief was welcome in the drought-stricken West, flash floods marooned cars in Death Valley and wreaked havoc in other places.
A stranded truck driver and two people in a van had to be rescued in a desert area outside Las Vegas after thunderstorms dumped more than 2 inches of rain within three hours early Wednesday and washed basketball-sized rocks onto roads in Valley of Fire State Park.
It was a different story in Northern California, where the Mosquito Fire burned more buildings Tuesday afternoon, just hours after officials reported making “great strides.”
Stronger winds pushed out a smoke inversion layer Tuesday that had been stifling the blaze and gave fresh oxygen to the flames, McLean said. The area is full of extremely dry vegetation that was rapidly igniting, challenging both firefighters on the ground and air.
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.
Crews were able to keep flames from entering the town of Foresthill, fire spokesperson Scott McLean said Wednesday. He said some buildings burned, but the exact number won’t be known until damage assessment teams were able to canvas the area.
The blaze 110 miles northeast of San Francisco was one of three large fires in the state and had grown to nearly 91 square miles, with 20% containment Wednesday, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire. More than 45 homes and other buildings have been destroyed.
The Fairview Fire was burning about 75 miles southeast of Los Angeles. The 44-square-mile blaze was 69% contained by Wednesday morning. Two people died fleeing the fire, which destroyed at least 35 homes and other structures in Riverside County.
Melley reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press writers Christopher Weber and Stefanie Dazio in Los Angeles and Ken Ritter in Las Vegas contributed to this report.
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