In hard hats and gloves, the rescuers inched along the west side of Montecito Creek on Thursday, looking for signs of people buried in the rubble.
A red fluid trickled through the water at a culvert now packed with boulders. Robert Stine, the search manager, marked the spot on a GPS. Later, he’d have a search dog sniff it.
“It could be blood, or it might not be,” Stine said. “We can’t tell.”
About 20 feet down, in the creek, a searcher spotted a piece of a white sock with a blue stripe, caked in mud.
“We got an article of clothing!” he shouted, spray-painting a nearby rock orange. Again, Stine saved the coordinates.
And so, tediously, meticulously, the searchers scoured the devastation left behind after violent mudslides sent giant boulders tumbling and powerful streams surging through neighborhoods, sweeping homes off their foundations, mangling cars and taking at least 17 lives.
Hundreds of rescuers slogged though the destruction searching for survivors. But as time passed, their prospects turned more grim.
Two days after Tuesday’s deluge, up to 43 people were still missing.
“There have been many miraculous stories of people lasting many days,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told reporters Thursday afternoon. “We certainly are searching for a miracle right now.”
Back at Montecito Creek, a cadaver dog joined Stine’s crew and sniffed the marked areas but got no scent. The fluid was probably gear oil, they figured.
They packed up to go to the next spot.
Rescue teams carried shovels and crowbars, and duct-taped their boots on so they wouldn’t lose them in the mud. They trudged past broken tables and fallen trees. One rescuer picked up a crumpled Polaroid photograph covered in dirt.
They probed at the muck with poles, feeling for hidden hazards: pools, open manholes or septic tanks lurking below.
“It’s essentially quicksand,” said Capt. Mark Seastrom of the Ventura County Fire Department. “If there’s a hole, we’ll fall and keep going until hitting the bottom.”
On Thursday, search teams finally got into some neighborhoods buried beneath mud and blocked by wreckage. Ventura County Fire Capt. Bob Schuett was staring at a map of Montecito as his partner drove along a ravaged roadway.
The duo led a crew of 43 assigned to find stranded residents in northeastern Montecito on Park Lane, Romero Canyon Road, Bella Vista Drive and East Valley Road. Some of those reported missing live in the area, said Schuett, whose team has rescued at least six people this week.
Off East Valley Road, a five-member team from San Diego and two search dogs, Stella and Decker, convened at the entrance of a destroyed property.
“OK, search,” handler Brent Brainard called out to Decker, a black Labrador and Weimaraner mix. Decker raced off along debris piles in the backyard, trying to catch a scent of survivors.
When people survive disasters, Brainard said, they tend to find empty spaces where they can wait things out. Brainard kept a close eye on Decker as he balanced on piles of trees reaching to the house’s second story.
As each pile was searched, pink tape was placed on its trees to show that it had been checked.
As Decker moved closer to the house, however, he was suddenly swallowed by mud.
“Oh … a swimming pool!” Brainard shouted. “Decker just went in!”
After scrambling to rescue Decker, it was Stella’s turn to investigate the area. She disappeared into the pool, too — this time at the other end.
When both dogs were back on solid ground and had shaken off the muck, the team prepared to move on, but not before leaving a warning for the next team to enter the premises. They tagged the wall outside the property: “pool.”
Had Decker or Stella found a survivor, the dogs would have been rewarded with toys. Stella, who is missing half of her jaw after having a tumor removed in June, gets a soft plush toy instead of the typical old fire hose. (She will retire in April of next year.)
“We’ve never had to go through mud like that,” said Matthew Kirk, Stella’s handler of eight years, of the mudslides. “It’s definitely very challenging.”
Conditions in Montecito were entirely new for the San Diego team.
“I haven’t been on anything like this in California before,” said Brainard, who has had Decker for four years.
The devastation reminded Scott Fuller, a logistics team manager with the search crew, of what Hurricane Katrina left behind.
“This is next level — the trees, the electrical wires, the gas we just discovered. This place is a wreck,” Fuller said. “I look at this and I go, how are these people ever going to recover from this? But they will. With resilience, help from the state and feds, a lot of hard work — they will somehow.”
Mozingo and Mejia reported from Montecito, and Tchekmedyian from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Matt Hamilton in Montecito contributed to this report.