Earl Warren Showgrounds packed with fire trucks at the Friday shift change.

Earl Warren Showgrounds packed with fire trucks at the Friday shift change.

Formal Missing Persons List Drops to Five; 500 More Firefighters Work the Montecito Mudslides

Confusion About the Number of Missing Persons Explained, Per Undersheriff

At the 7 a.m. shift change at Earl Warren Showgrounds on Friday, incident commanders told the hundreds of firefighters sipping hot coffee and about to deploy to stay focused. “This is the time people start to feel more comfortable,” a commander said. “There was a lot of great work yesterday. We need more work today.”

Commanders announced the number of missing people dramatically dropped to five from 43. In recent days, the number has fluctuated and has caused considerable confusion. Sheriff Bill Brown announced 43 people were missing at a press conference on Thursday evening after his department reported earlier in the day that the number was eight.

On Friday morning, Undersheriff Bernard Melekian explained in a telephone interview the reason for the drastic variation was because there were essentially two lists. One list is the number of people who are formally missing — currently five. The second list is compiled from tips that the Sheriff’s Office received from concerned friends and family members, often from out of the area. “Sometimes the lists get compounded,” he said. Confusing matters more, the Sheriff’s Office received as many as seven calls for one person.

The number of firefighters working the incident Friday ballooned to 1,250 from 700 on Thursday. Most of the crews appeared to be from Southern California departments, including Oxnard, Downey, and Riverside. Some had returned from fighting the Thomas Fire in December. (The Thomas Fire is now 100 percent contained; on Thursday it was 93 percent. Thirteen personnel are still assigned to it.)

As of Monday, January 22, the Santa Barbara Independent has assessed the homes mapped above as either “Appears OK” (in green), “Appears Damaged” (in yellow), or “Appears Destroyed or Majorly Damaged” (in red). The January 9 debris flows are outlined in red. Click the brackets in the top right-hand corner to enlarge the map. (Map by Brandon Yadegari, Tyler Hayden, and Chinelo Ufondu for the Independent)

Commanders told firefighters tents would be available for sleeping, adding tents for the inmate groups are separate. On Saturday afternoon at about 4 p.m., comfort dogs would be at Earl Warren.

The temperature on Friday was forecasted to be 70 degrees; conditions were predicted to be drier, posing new challenges for rescuers. While drier conditions are good for bigger streets that have been cleared, not all neighborhoods have been shoveled. Drier weather conditions create a hard-top ground layer that can be deceiving. Firefighters who have stepped on top of it have found themselves sunk into ankle-deep or waist-deep mud in some areas.

Public information officer Mike Smith said fire crews had made initial contact in all Montecito searching. In recent days, he said, there have been “hundreds of rescues — some more dramatic than others.” Rescues include contacting residents who have been sheltering in their homes. “We would encourage everyone to leave,” he said. After all, he said, we will get more rain.

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