FOREST FALLS, Calif. — Exhausted and fearful of more destruction beneath ominous skies, residents of this small hamlet in the San Bernardino Mountains struggled Monday to dig out from a flash flood and landslide on Sunday that killed a woman and destroyed about 18 homes.
Digging through tons of muck, rock and uprooted trees, rescue teams assisted by trained dogs spent Monday searching for more possible victims before San Bernardino County Fire Marshal Pete Brierty announced late in the afternoon that all residents had been accounted for.
Authorities nonetheless kept a log of all hikers and campers leaving the area, to cross-reference against names of those who had taken out wilderness permits to visit the sparsely populated area.
Killed Sunday was a 36-year-old resident, identified by the county coroner's office as Allison Crow. Her parents were among five people hospitalized at Loma Linda University Medical Center in fair to good condition.
The landslide was sparked by Sunday's downpour, which dumped about 1 1/2 inches of rain in an hour, swiftly swelling mountain creeks.
There were more mountain thunderstorms Monday, as Southern California continued to suffer under an onslaught of hot, muggy weather that pushed temperatures above 100 degrees in the Los Angeles Basin.
It was hot farther north, too--115 in Red Bluff--and people turned on so many air conditioners that the state's Independent Systems Operator, chartered to manage the flow of electricity, called for a cutback in power usage for a couple of hours. Operating reserves dropped to a worrisome 7%, but returned to less critical levels.
Lightning ignited several small brush fires near Santa Clarita and in the Angeles National Forest Monday afternoon, but they were quickly controlled. Brief but heavy showers triggered heavy runoff in isolated areas of the Tehachapi, San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains, but there were no reports of major new damage.
Hardest hit Sunday were homes along two usually bucolic mountain streams that became engorged, loosening tons of mud, boulders and trees that cascaded down a steep hillside. The debris carried cars into homes and homes into other homes, leaving survivors tearful and awe-struck.
Late Sunday and again Monday afternoon, emergency officials announced a second fatality, but the county coroner's office said it knew of no additional deaths from the flood and could not explain the confusion.
The death and injuries were attributed to the largest of several landslides, triggered when thunderheads lurking over Mt. San Gorgonio, the highest peak in Southern California, suddenly unleashed after 4 p.m. Sunday.
"It started with raindrops the size of silver dollars, then hail, and it just got worse and within a couple of hours we were pretty much in turmoil," said Joe Thurman, a firefighter.
Damage was mostly alongside two smaller creeks, but the runoff swelled Mill Creek, a popular summertime destination where visitors often plunk down lawn chairs and sip beer but which, Sunday afternoon, was overflowing its banks.
By dusk on Sunday, Forest Falls was cut off from the outside world because both lanes of the only road into the community of several hundred were covered with mud and debris. Residents were left mostly on their own in clawing through destroyed homes to rescue neighbors and tourists, and to care for the injured until helicopters could evacuate the most seriously hurt.
Randy Thompson said his cabin began shaking "and a 12-foot wall of boulders and water started gushing down." He ran outside to a neighbor's home that was engulfed in the same landslide, and came across an older man who was all but buried beneath an upturned fireplace. "He said, 'My daughter's beneath me,' " Thompson said, his voice cracking. "She was already dead."
Several other neighbors worked for three hours to extricate an elderly woman who was trapped up to her shoulders in mud and debris after the landslide crashed into her home. As quickly as they removed rocks pinning her legs, more debris collapsed around them.
Another resident, Donna Gilmer, said a neighbor's home literally slipped into her own backyard and its occupant staggered out of the wreckage, dazed and pleading, "Help me, help me, help me."
"The dear lady, it was all she could say," said Gilmer of the injured woman. "The water had ripped her clothes off. She was cut and bloody. I didn't know what I could do. I wrapped her in towels until the paramedics showed up, about an hour later."
Laurie Thompson said the landslide struck with little notice. "It was like an earthquake, the way the rocks the size of trucks, and full-size trees, were coming off the hillside," she said.
A crew of about 200 emergency workers with earth movers finally cleared the road into town by Monday afternoon, allowing for the evacuation of hikers, campers and other tourists out of the steep canyon before another possible storm struck.