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More slides feared in California hamlet

La Conchita (California), Jan. 13 (Reuters): Officials warned residents of a California hamlet yesterday that the steep hills overlooking their community could collapse again as the death toll from a mudslide rose to 10 with three still missing.

Rescue workers kept up their search for any survivors who may still be trapped in the 10 metre mound of earth that swallowed some 15 homes in La Conchita, about 130 km north of Los Angeles.

Part of a hillside that towered over the seaside enclave collapsed two days ago after weeks of drenching rain unleashed torrents of mud that buried a four-block area within seconds. At a hastily called town meeting at an evacuation centre, officials warned residents that more slides were likely and that the mud and debris were still moving and unstable.

'We consider that the whole area of La Conchita is unsafe,' said Ventura county deputy fire chief Dave Festerling. 'We want people out of the area.'

Residents and sheriff's deputies wept as the names of the 10 confirmed dead were read out. But when the names of 10 other people presumed buried were read, four of them stood up in the room to announce that they had survived. This prompted a burst of relieved applause from 150 or so residents of the tightly knit town.

Sheriff's deputies found three residents who had been feared missing, suggesting that three adults remained buried under the debris. Earlier, Ventura county fire chief Bob Roper had cautioned that the number of missing was uncertain because members of the bohemian beachfront community came and went without much notice. 'Nobody signed a guest book,' he said.

Emergency teams worked under floodlights using a borrowed radar system to locate holes in the debris where it might still be possible to find survivors.

Fire officials vowed to continue the search-and-rescue mission before shifting to a recovery effort for bodies. Rescuers said they were racing against time as the mound of mud quickly hardened into the consistency of concrete. They were also wary of shifting too much dirt out of fear of triggering another slide.

Early in the day, emergency crews recovered the bodies of Michelle Wallet and her three daughters, Hannah, 10, Raven, 6, and two-year-old Paloma. The four were found on a couch where they had been waiting for husband and father Jimmie Wallet to return from a nearby store with ice cream. The slide crushed their home and drove it about 100 metres from its foundation.

'They were sitting on a couch together apparently unaware. It appears they never had a chance to get out. The room was flattened,' said Scott Hall, head of search and rescue for the Ventura county fire department.

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