As California mudslide death toll hits 18, crews keep up the search

At least 18 people were killed and at least five are still missing in the devastating mudslides plaguing Southern California, local authorities said Friday.

The latest person found dead was Joseph Bleckel, an 87-year-old who was found by a search team in his home Friday morning. Bleckel was among those on the missing persons list, according to Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown.

But during a later news conference, Brown also announced the recovery of resident John Keating, 53, who only moments before was still categorized as missing.

"He is in an out-of-area hospital being treated,” Brown told reporters. “So our missing list is down to five.”


Many residents in Montecito were under orders of evacuation as crews continued to search for missing victims, as well as repair power, water and gas lines and clean up massive quantities of debris. More than 1,200 workers were said to be at the scene.

The area northwest of Los Angeles is home to celebrities such as Rob Lowe, Ellen DeGeneres and Oprah Winfrey.

Even those who didn't lose their homes were told to leave for up to two weeks so they wouldn't interfere with the rescue and recovery operation.

Brown expanded the public safety exclusion zone Thursday to encompass most of Montecito, meaning that even those who had previously remained in the area were forced to leave. Those who didn’t comply would be subject to arrest.


The mudslides, which were set off by heavy rain, took many homeowners by surprise early Tuesday, despite warnings issued days in advance that slides were possible due to the recent wildfires that stripped hillsides of vegetation that normally holds soil in place.

The evacuations are among a host of issues for the town that has been subjected to repeated evacuation orders in recent weeks, beginning with those enacted because of the Thomas Fire in December.

The U.S. Forest Service announced Friday that the Thomas Fire, the largest wildfire recorded in state history, was officially 100 percent contained, confirmed by aerial surveys of the charred 440-square-mile area.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.