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    Mudslide-stricken California town is all but emptied out

    MONTECITO, Calif. — Most residents of mudslide-ravaged Montecito were under orders to clear out Friday as the search for victims dragged on and crews labored to clean up the muck and repair power, water, and gas lines.

    Even those who didn’t lose their homes in the disaster that left at least 17 people dead were told to leave for up to two weeks so they wouldn’t interfere with the rescue and recovery operation in the Southern California town of 9,000. Five people remained missing.

    The US Forest Service said Friday that the Thomas wildfire that led to the deadly mudslides was fully contained. The declaration followed aerial surveys of the 440-square-mile scar left by the fire.


    The oldest victim swept away in the California mudslide was Jim Mitchell, who had celebrated his 89th birthday the day before. He died with his wife, Alice.

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    The youngest, 3-year-old Kailly Benitez, was one of four children killed.

    As their names and those of 14 other victims were released, crews kept digging through the muck and rubble looking for more people.

    The evacuation order was another frustrating turn for those living in Montecito, a town that has been under siege and subject to repeated evacuation orders in recent weeks, first because of the wildfire last month, then because of rain and mudslides.

    Cia Monroe said she was lucky that her family’s home wasn’t ruined and they were all healthy and safe, though one of her daughter’s best friends died.


    But Monroe said it was stressful after evacuating three times during the wildfire to be packing up a fourth time and looking at spending money for a hotel.

    ‘‘Financially, that’s a burden,’’ she said.

    A fleet of large trucks and heavy equipment rolled into town Thursday, and the forces on the ground swelled to more than 1,200 workers.

    Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said residents who had stayed behind or tried to check on damage in neighborhoods where homes were leveled and car-size boulders and trees blocked roads and littered properties were hindering the recovery effort.

    Brown expanded what was known as the exclusion zone to incorporate most of the town. That meant that even those who had stayed behind would have to leave and those who entered the zone would be subject to arrest.

    Associated Press