At least thirteen people were killed on Tuesday after a powerful winter storm drenching Southern California sent mud and debris streaming down wildfire-scarred hillsides and into several neighborhoods, some of which house lavish celebrity homes.
The deaths were reported in the Montecito and Carpinteria areas northwest of Los Angeles, which were severely hit by flooding and a debris flow, Amber Anderson with the Santa Barbara Office of Emergency Services said.
The Coast Guard said it is providing three to four air ships for rescue operations, but will not conduct air rescue missions if there are drones in the area.
There have been multiple rescues throughout the day in Montecito, known for its star power, as the enclave boasts the mansions of Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres and several other celebrities.
“I’ve love being part of the Montecito community,” DeGeneres wrote on Twitter. “I send love to all the families and the amazing rescue workers braving these mudslides.”
Ellen also tweeted a flooded picture of the 101 Freeway and wrote, “This is not a river. This is the 101 freeway in my neighborhood right now. Montecito needs your love and support.”
Actor Rob Lowe said on Twitter he was praying for all our friends and neighbors, adding it was a very bad situation in Montecito.
Mike Eliason, a public information officer with the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, said the heavy rains triggered massive runoff.
“Heavy rains have triggered massive runoff in the Montecito area,” Eliason wrote on Twitter. “Multiple rescues from vehicles and structures are underway. Access is difficult/delayed due to-at some locations-waist deep mudflow, trees, and wires down. Avoid the area.”
The Santa Barbara Fire Department told KEYT-TV at least three homes have been destroyed by a mud and debris slide in the area of Hot Springs Road. One man was also rescued from mud that was up to his neck, Santa Barbara County Fire Captain Dave Zaniboni told KEYT.
There are rescues currently underway in Montecito, Carpinteria and in neighboring Ventura County. A gas leak caused a structure to catch fire above Montecito, but it is still unknown if anyone was injured in that blaze.
Zaniboni told KEYT that multiple homes were destroyed and residents are unaccounted for in neighborhoods below hillsides scarred by recent fires. The television station also showed a body being loaded into a military-style truck on a mud-covered street.
Firefighters in Montecito were able to rescue a 14 year-old-girl after she was trapped for hours inside a destroyed home, according to Eliason.
In Montecito, some residents said they had shrugged off dire warnings about the rainstorm before waking up to the deluge.
In another Twitter post, Eliason posted pictures of firefighters rescuing two men and a woman from flood waters on Hot Springs Road in Montecito.
While it is still unclear if any celebrity homes were affected by the recent flooding and mudslides, several of those houses had close-calls when the Thomas Fire recently threatened the region.
Oprah Winfrey, who recently fueled speculation over a possible 2020 presidential run after her speech at the Golden Globe Awards, said she returned to her home in Montecito on January 4.
“1st day back at home. Still smelling smoke.But grateful to have a home to come to and forever grateful to firefighters. #ThomasFire,” she tweeted.
The California Highway Patrol said US 101 northbound & southbound lanes were closed due to flooding and debris flows in the Thomas Fire burn area, located north of Ventura and south of Santa Barbara, and several freeways and highways were also closed in Ventura and Los Angeles Countirse due to mudslides.
The National Weather Service in Los Angeles said at least five inches of rainfall fell in the town of Ojai in Ventura County. The region about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles is located in the burn area of the Thomas Fire, which scarred the land last month and was the largest in California history.
The NWS said 0.54 inches of rain fell in 5 mins in Montecito and 1.11 inches of rain in 30-minutes at Carpinteria between 3:30 and 3:45 a.m. Santa Barbara County officials said the NWS has predicted more severe weather, heavy rain, and possible flash flooding, mud and debris flows in the area over the next several hours.
“If you are in debris flow areas, leave now and go to high ground,” officials said.
Evacuations were ordered in those foothill neighborhoods Monday because of mudslide fears.
The county set up an evacuation shelter at Santa Barbara City College, where some people showed up drenched in mud, and also provided a place for people to take their animals.
There was also a mudslide reported on La Tuna Canyon Road in Los Angeles, which caused several vehicles to get stuck in the mud, including a Los Angeles Police Department cruiser.
The first significant storm of the season soaked much of the state. Record-breaking rain fell on the San Francisco Bay region before the storm largely passed overnight, leaving diminishing showers there before dawn Tuesday. Stormy weather continued to the east in the Central Valley and Sierra Nevada.
The number of fatalities surpassed the death toll from a California mudslide on January 10, 2005, when 10 people were killed as a hillside gave way in the town of La Conchita, less than 20 miles (32 km) south of the latest disaster.
A year-long drought eased in the state last spring, but Northern California had a dry start to winter and hardly any measurable rain fell in the south over the past six months. The extremely dry conditions and high winds last year led to some of the most destructive blazes on both ends of the state.