SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- The grueling search efforts following mudslides in Southern California enter a fourth day Friday, with authorities scouring piles of debris again as the window to find survivors narrows.
Rescuers plan to search several areas for a second time, hoping to find victims in structures previously examined in the immediate aftermath of Tuesday's mudslides.
The mudslides killed at least 17 people and destroyed dozens of homes. Those killed ranged in age from 3 to 89, and all lived in Santa Barbara County, northwest of Los Angeles, authorities said.
Dozens remain unaccounted for despite days of frantic searches by rescuers after rivers of mud and boulders flooded through communities in Montecito, an affluent seaside community east of Santa Barbara, demolishing homes and leaving roads impassable.
"In disaster circumstances, there have been many miraculous stories of people lasting many days. We certainly are searching for a miracle right now," Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said.
"But realistically we suspect that we are going to continue to have discovery of people who were killed in this incident."
The number of people missing in and around Montecito was in flux Thursday, with Brown saying it could be as high as 43.
Authorities have not confirmed that many people are unaccounted for, he said, but are looking into reports from phone calls, social media and message boards.
"It doesn't mean that they (the 43 people) are all actively missing," he said. "We certainly hope there are going to be far fewer than that. We hope there's not going to be any more."
Evacuation zone increased
The immediate areas where people were killed are under mandatory evacuation, and officials increased the size of the evacuation zone Thursday.
"We know that this a terribly inconvenient development, but it is also incredibly necessary," Brown said.
"This entire area is a very active rescue and recovery and repair zone right now," he said.
He said the zone, which includes areas formerly under voluntary evacuation advisories, would be in effect for one week but that residents should plan for two.
Rescue workers are using helicopters and all-terrain vehicles in a search hampered by blocked roads and downed trees and power lines.
Billy Grokenberger lives in a part of Montecito that was under a voluntary evacuation order. He and his parents put belongings in three cars in case they decided to leave before the storm. They didn't.
"We had thought about leaving, but we had just had the fires," he said, referring to the recent wildfires that stripped the area of needed vegetation. "... We didn't take it serious(ly) enough."
On the morning of the storm, Grokenberger watched as 2 to 3 feet of water streamed down the street.
"(In) four minutes the water was through our wall and in our house, almost to the second story," he said.
"The house is destroyed, but you know, there's just so many others who are less fortunate. But we just feel lucky that we were able to get out and (are) alive."
Risk of mudslides for years
The storm hit hard between 3 and 6 a.m. Tuesday. The rain poured down on hillsides charred by recent wildfires, which burned vegetation that otherwise could make the terrain more resistant to mudslides.
The Thomas Fire -- the largest wildfire in California's recorded history -- has burned more than 281,000 acres in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties since it began in early December. It's still burning.
Geologists and forecasters warned that intense rain could trigger deadly mudslides from the scorched areas.
And because of the fire, communities below the scarred terrain could remain at risk of mudslides for years, said Randall Jibson, a research geologist with the US Geological Survey.
Montecito may be at slightly less risk now, because this week's flooding already brought down vulnerable material.
"(But) no storm brings down everything that is susceptible. There's almost always more" that could come down, Jibson said.
Montecito and Carpinteria are especially vulnerable to mudslides because the steep terrain in some places goes from thousands of feet above sea level to sea level in just a few miles, said Tom Fayram, a deputy public works director with Santa Barbara County.