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4 children from church camp among dead in Calif. slides

9 still missing; many involved are immigrants

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. -- Four children from a church camp were among seven people found dead after mudslides ravaged a canyon recently burned bare in the San Bernardino Mountains, officials said yesterday.

The children ranged in age from 9 to 17, said San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Cindy Beavers. A 30-year-old was also found dead near the camp, and the bodies of two other adults were found at another campground about five miles away.

In Waterman Canyon, where the children's bodies were found, emergency crews continued working their way through the mud-covered debris of a Greek Orthodox youth camp in a search for nine people still missing.

"We're still hopeful at this point that we will find someone alive," Beavers said. "At this point, it's still a search and rescue."

Twenty-seven people, many of them immigrants from Central America, were believed to have been celebrating Christmas with the caretaker at the Green Orthodox camp when the mudslide roared through, burying buildings under several feet of debris-filled mud and sweeping two cabins away. Fourteen people were rescued, but several children remained missing.

Saturday morning, the camp was a muddy, gray landscape strewn with boulders and uprooted trees that had been swept down the canyon following a downpour that had loosened ground once stabilized by vegetation that the fall wildfires had devoured.

Some buildings remained standing. Others were partly buried.

Next to a small creek, about 50 yards from the caretaker's home, had been a children's playground with swings and climbing bars, said Perry Skaggs, of St. Sophia Cathedral in Los Angeles, which owns the camp. If the children were playing there when the mudslide began, they probably wouldn't have had a chance, Skaggs said yesterday.

George Monzon, the caretaker who lived at the camp with his wife and two children, was also among the missing, said the Rev. John Bakas, dean of St. Sophia Cathedral.

Many of those visiting Monzon were Guatemalan immigrants who belonged to a San Bernardino church, Iglesia de Dios de la Profecia, and nearly all the missing children were Sunday school students, the Los Angeles Times reported yesterday.

Two other bodies, a man and a woman, were found near each other about a half-mile from a KOA campground in Devore, about five miles to the west, where 32 house trailers were destroyed, authorities said. No one else had been reported missing there, said Kris Phillips, sheriff's deputy.

Wildfires burned thousands of acres of forest land last fall on the steep slopes of the San Bernardino Mountains. That left the hills bereft of vegetation that once held rocks and soil in place.

The mudslide, coming after the winter rainy season, could be the beginning of what scientists and flood specialists believe could be five years of landslides and other debris flows in Southern California resulting from the wildfires.

Even before the October fires were fully extinguished, geologists and flood control engineers cautioned that the chances of a catastrophic landslide in the charred areas had increased exponentially.

The danger is especially severe in the canyons and foothills of San Bernardino County, where urbanization residents has have moved closer to the mountains in recent years.

Public safety officials in San Bernardino County met with mountain residents and campground owners recently, reminding them of the danger of mudslides and urging them to update their evacuation plans.

They also had been erecting barriers to divert mud flows from vulnerable, populated areas. But Tuesday's rains came too soon for that work to be completed.

Material from the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.

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