With more than 130 hours having passed since massive flash flooding left a trail of death and destruction through Montecito, officials on Sunday reached the point where they no longer believe the few remaining missing people could still be alive.
“After secondary searches of all of the homes in the impact area that were destroyed or seriously damaged in the storm, and after careful consultation with the fire incident commanders and subject-matter experts, at 7 a.m. today we transitioned from a search-and-rescue operation to a search and recovery mission,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown announced at a press briefing at Earl Warren Showgrounds.
“This decision was not made lightly. The decision was only authorized after extensive searches for the identified missing persons were conducted at their last known location, through the debris field, all the way to the Pacific Ocean.”
Twenty fatalities have been confirmed in the flash flooding that occurred in the early morning hours Tuesday after a powerful storm dumped rainfall on the Thomas Fire-denuded mountains and hillsides above Montecito, Summerland and Carpinteria.
The latest casualties were discovered Saturday, and both people had been on the missing-persons list.
Four people remain unaccounted for, and Sunday’s decision signals that incident commanders believe it’s extremely unlikely any of them are still alive.
The shift to a recovery operation “means that the search has become more methodical, slower,” Brown told Noozhawk. “The rescue mode is to try to get there and obviously find somebody alive. There have been two searches of homes, and its been over 130 hours.
“It’s believed it’s very unlikely anybody could still be alive in those structures.”
Brown said crews will now be able to slow down some, and hopefully find the remains of the four missing people.
“That’s the search element of it,” he said. “Simultaneously, there’s the recovery efforts and the repairs efforts.”
Key progress was made Sunday toward reopening Highway 101 through Montecito, which was inundated with water, mud, boulders and debris and has been closed since Tuesday.
“We’re now in an environment where the water has receded to a point where for the first time we’re able to remove solid material that’s closest to the roadway,” said Jim Shivers, a Caltrans spokesman.
Shivers said that Caltrans officials hope, within the next 24 hours, to provide an estimate of when Highway 101 will reopen.
Tom Fayram, deputy director of the county Public Works Department, said crews continue to make progress repairing Montecito Creek, which is responsible for most of the water pouring onto the freeway.
Army Corps of Engineers crews also have made progress cleaning out debris basins that are overflowing with materials brought down from the fire-damaged canyons by the storm.
Work is underway in eight debris basins, with work on three more expected to start on Monday, Fayram said.
Crews are also working to reopen Highway 192/East Valley Road, Shivers said, and have identified three bridges that were seriously damaged.
When it does reopen, it’s anticipated that traffic will be restricted in those areas, Shivers said
The Montecito Water District continues to work on assessing damage to its systems and making repairs, according to Nick Turner, district general manager.
Boil-water orders are still in effect within district boundaries, Turner said, and three locations have been set up for distributing potable water to district customers in the Montecito area.
Breaks have been found in the district’s high-line transmission main, other main lines, as well as fire hydrants and service lines, Turner said, and repairs are continuing.
As of Sunday night, incident commanders were reporting 73 single-family residences were destroyed, with another 161 damaged, a lower number than had previously been reported.
There also have been 18 commercial properties damaged, but none destroyed, which is a change from previous reports.
Nearly 2,300 people remain assigned to the incident, including 162 fire engines, 49 hand crews, 39 K-9 and urban search-and-rescue teams, 10 technical rescue teams, eight bulldozer and two helicopters.
— Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.