At least 14 people have died as Southern California’s first major rainstorm of the year comes on the heels of the most devastating wildfire season the state has seen in modern history.
Thirteen of the fatalities occurred in Santa Barbara County, where conditions are particularly catastrophic, according to Santa Barbara County officials. A fourteenth person died on the 5 Freeway when a big rig overturned near Los Feliz in an incident being blamed on inclement weather, the Los Angeles Times reported.
At least 25 others were injured in the county, while dozens had to rescued, including 50 by hoist, according to officials.
Brown said the death toll could rise. Officials said many of the deaths are believed to be in the coastal Montecito area, where mudflows and floodwater have inundated areas downstream from where the Thomas Fire burned thousands of acres last month.
The destruction “looked like a World War I battlefield,” said Brown.
The heavy rain was falling in areas charred by recent wildfires, triggering warnings of flash flooding and mudslides because vegetation that otherwise would hold hills together and make the terrain flood-resistant have burned away.
Between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m., emergency dispatchers received about 600 calls, according to Brown.
Six homes near Montecito were “wiped away from their foundations” by mudflow and debris, Santa Barbara County fire spokesman Mike Eliason said.
Moving debris also damaged a gas main, starting a fire that consumed a building overnight, he added.
Montecito resident Ben Hyatt said a river of mud crashed through a neighbor’s house early Tuesday morning.
“Apparently one of their cars ended (up) in their backyard. We have neighbors at (the) top of street that evacuated to their roof,” Hyatt said.
Muddy, debris-filled floodwaters had widespread effect, with parts of the seaside 101 Freeway closed in Ventura County. A stew of water, garbage and tree limbs flooded one part of the freeway between Montecito and Carpinteria.
One man who was driving down the freeway said an onslaught of mud and debris came rushing toward the front of his car “out of nowhere.”
“It took about five seconds for all this to cover the 101,” Eric Horowitz, the driver, told KTLA as he looked over piles of mud and debris packed onto the roadway.
“I’m lucky to be alive,” he said.
A woman who lives in Carpinteria, Sally Brooks, said a flood of mud came rushing toward her home with a sudden and powerful force.
“It was unbelievable,” Brooks said. “We were laying in bed, listening to the rain and out of nowhere, our bed just started shaking and we could hear just like this thunder.”
“And within a minute, it sounded like a freight train was going through our house,” she said.
More than 4 inches of rain fell in areas charred by recent wildfires, triggering warnings of flash flooding and mudslides because vegetation that otherwise would hold hills together and make the terrain flood-resistant has burned away.
On Tuesday night, the sheriff declared a public safety exclusion zone in Montecito, meaning residents would not be able to move about certain areas. The ares include west of Sherffield Drive/East Valley Road/Ladera Lane, east of Olive Mill/Hot Springs Road, north to the Pacific Ocean and south of the U.S. Forest Service Boundary. (An interactive map can be found at countyofsb.org)
Residents can shelter in place in their homes, authorities said. Anyone who fails to heed the order could be arrested.
Mandatory evacuations remain in place for 7,000 residents, while an addition 23,000 people are under a voluntary one.
• Thirteen storm-related deaths were reported in Santa Barbara County, Sheriff Brown said.
• The 101 Freeway in parts of Montecito and Santa Barbara, will remain closed for at least 48 hours after muddy, debris-filled water flooded parts of the seaside roadway, according to Capt. Cindy Pontes with the California Highway Patrol.
•Parts of the 192 are also closed at multiple locations, as are numerous roads in Montecito.
•A power outage has left 6,000 homes in the dark, most of which are in the Montecito area. Many parts of the community also do not have portable water and sanitary services.
• By early Tuesday afternoon, more than 5.5 inches of rain had fallen in parts of Ventura County over two days, the National Weather Service said. In Carpinteria, nearly 1 inch fell in just 15 minutes, the agency said.
• The weather forced the closure of several theme parks, including Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia and SeaWorld in San Diego.
‘Call after call’ from stranded residents
Before the storm hit, Santa Barbara issued mandatory evacuations for more than 6,000 people, including living in those parts of Carpinteria, Montecito and Goleta, located below areas scorched by wildfires, including the Thomas Fire, county spokeswoman Gina DePinto said.
Voluntary evacuation warnings were in effect for another 20,000 people, including others in those same communities, she said.
Brown said deputies and search and rescue team members went door-to-door Monday conducting evacuations in the mandatory evacuation areas. Those notifications were all made by nightfall, Brown said.
“While some residents cooperated with the evacuations, many did not. Many chose to stay in place, “Brown said.
The sheriff said the storm hit hard around 3 a.m. Tuesday. Between 3 and 6 a.m., dispatchers with the sheriff’s office handled more than 600 telephone calls for assistance.
“They received call after call from people who were distressed, stranded in their homes or vehicles and were in need of immediate rescue,” Brown said.
He added: “Once daylight came, we had a very difficult time assessing the area and responding to many of those areas to assist those people.”
Brown said the mud was “knee-deep” in many places on the roadways and even deeper in the canyons.
Teenager trapped for hours in Montecito
The rain fell in areas charred by recent wildfires, triggering warnings of flash flooding and mudslides because vegetation that otherwise would hold hills together and make the terrain flood-resistant has burned away.
In Montecito, six homes were “wiped away from their foundations” by mudflow and debris, Santa Barbara County fire spokesman Mike Eliason said.
Eliason said firefighters rescued a 14-year-old girl, who had been trapped for hours in a collapsed Montecito home. The girl, coated head to foot in mud, was led by firefighters from the pile of wood and debris that was once a house, a photo from the county fire department shows.
In another part of Montecito, Eliason said he saw “utter devastation.”
“There were three houses that were completely knocked off their foundations. Debris and wood everywhere, looking like matchsticks,” he said.
Eliason recalled looking at the red band on a radar, indicating heavy rainfall.
“When that hit those hillsides, it just came rushing down,” Eliason said. “Time and time again, I found myself waist deep in floodwater.
The mud and debris left roadways and neighborhoods in Montecito unrecognizable.
‘Mud came in an instant, like a dam breaking’
Ben Hyatt said a river of mud had crashed through a neighbor’s house in Montecito, a community of about 8,000 east of Santa Barbara,
“Apparently, one of their cars ended (up) in their backyard. We have neighbors at (the) top of the street that evacuated to their roof,” Hyatt said.
Hyatt said his Montecito house was “surrounded by mud,” and a washing machine had drifted into his front yard.
Hyatt said he was awake when power went out during heavy rain around 2:30 a.m. Eventually, he heard a loud swish and banging on the exterior of his house.
“Mud came in an instant, like a dam breaking. (It) surrounded the house, 2 to 3 feet,” he said.
“Seems calm now. We feel safe. But definitely stuck here for a bit.”
There were several glimmers of hope, as emergency officials rescued stranded residents.
Eliason, the Santa Barbara County fire spokesman, posted photos of firefighters leading people through mud and floodwater to safety.
Also in Montecito, a ruptured gas line led to a fire that consumed a building, Eliason said.
Surveillance camera video appears to show an explosion connected to that fire, said Eric Trautwein, who posted the footage on Twitter.
Cars mired in the muck
Photos of vehicles stuck in mud in Los Angeles County and nearby areas dotted Twitter feeds. One post showed a California Department of Transportation crew trying to help a trapped motorist.
In another, a Los Angeles police squad car was mired in the muck. “Officers were responding to help with evacuations. Within seconds their vehicle was consumed by the mud,” the post reads.
‘Praying’ for Santa Barbara
Oprah Winfrey, who has home in Montecito, said she was “praying for our community again in Santa Barbara.”
“Woke up to this blazing gas fire,” she posted on social media.
Winfrey also showed photo of mud in her backyard.
“Helicopters rescuing my neighbors. Looking for missing persons. 13 lives lost,” she wrote.
More than 1 inch of rain per hour
The rainfall rate of more than 1.5 inches per hour in parts of Southern California overwhelmed the landscape.
About a half inch per hour is enough to start mudslides, said Robbie Monroe of the National Weather Service in Oxnard.
The downpour is overpowering a terrain especially vulnerable in the wake of recent fires.
The Thomas Fire — the largest wildfire in California’s recorded history — has burned more than 281,000 acres in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties since it began in early December. It was 92% contained, and officials don’t expect full containment until later this month.
Montecito and Carpinteria are vulnerable to mudslides because the steep terrain in some places goes from thousands of feet above to sea level to sea level in “a matter of just a few miles,” said Tom Fayram, a deputy public works director with Santa Barbara County
“That’s definitely at play here. It’s just a mess,” he said.
Fayram said crews working to clear mud and debris from roadways saw “boulders the size of trucks that came rolling down the hillsides.”
“This is a disaster, much worse than the mudslides of 1995,” Fayram said. We’re trying to get help from federal and state officials.”
The region has suffered from years of drought, and officials say they need the rain to regrow plants and trees that help keep the hillsides together and floodproof.
Mudslides are not uncommon to the area and can be deadly.
In January 2005, a landslide struck La Conchita in Ventura County, killing 10 people and destroying or damaging 36 houses.
The US 101 Freeway at the Olive Mill Road overpass flooded with runoff water from Montecito Creek. pic.twitter.com/SjaSOgOFMm
— SBCFireInfo (@EliasonMike) January 9, 2018
View from the air in Montecito. Areas that had been roadways, driveways, and homes, are now unrecognizable due to the large amount of mud and debris flows. pic.twitter.com/dbsUPw3mrL
— VenturaCoAirUnit (@VCAirUnit) January 9, 2018
#CAstorm– With water levels receding, a vehicle is shown that was wrapped and tangled around a tree by the force of deadly flood waters and mudflow on Hot Springs Road in Montecito. In the background are homes that were completely destroyed. pic.twitter.com/w3lp7bokhf
— SBCFireInfo (@EliasonMike) January 10, 2018