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UPDATE: 13 Dead In Southern California As Rain Triggers Mudslides

The rain is causing mudslides on hills stripped by massive wildfires, and authorities are warning of floods

Debris and mud cover the street in front of shops in Montecito, Calif., Tuesday after heavy rain brought deadly flooding to the region.

At least 13 people were killed and homes were torn from their foundations Tuesday as downpours sent mud and boulders roaring down hills stripped of vegetation by a gigantic wildfire that raged in Southern California last month.

Rescue crews used helicopters to pluck people from rooftops because trees and power lines blocked roads, and firefighters pulled a mud-caked 14-year-old girl from a collapsed Montecito home where she had been trapped for hours.

“I thought I was dead for a minute there,” the girl could be heard saying on video posted by KNBC-TV before she was taken away on a stretcher.

Most deaths were believed to have occurred in Montecito, a wealthy enclave of about 9,000 people northwest of Los Angeles that is home to such celebrities as Oprah Winfrey, Rob Lowe and Ellen DeGeneres, said Santa Barbara County spokesman David Villalobos. At least 25 people were injured and others were unaccounted for.

The mud was unleashed in the dead of night by flash flooding in the steep, fire-scarred Santa Ynez Mountains. Burned-over zones are especially susceptible to destructive mudslides because scorched earth doesn’t absorb water well and the land is easily eroded when there are no shrubs.

A flash flood area sign is posted as residents evacuate from several fire-ravaged communities in Santa Barbara, Calif.

The torrent of mud early Tuesday swept away cars and destroyed several homes, reducing them to piles of lumber. Photos posted on social media showed waist-deep mud in living rooms.

“I came around the house and heard a deep rumbling, an ominous sound I knew was … boulders moving as the mud was rising,” said Thomas Tighe, who discovered two of his cars missing from the driveway in the middle of the night. “I saw two other vehicles moving slowly sideways down the middle of the street in a river of mud.”

In daylight, Tighe was shocked to see a body pinned by muck against his neighbor’s home. He wasn’t sure who it was.

Authorities had been bracing for the possibility of catastrophic flooding because of heavy rain in the forecast for the first time in 10 months.

Evacuations were ordered beneath recently burned areas of Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties. But only an estimated 10 to 15 percent of people in a mandatory evacuation area of Santa Barbara County heeded the warning, authorities said.

Marshall Miller, who evacuated his home in Montecito on Monday with his family, returned to check for damage and found his neighborhood devastated. He never reached his home because two of his neighbors, an elderly woman and her adult daughter, needed a lift to the hospital after being rescued by firefighters.

The pair had left their house before it was inundated with 6 feet (1.8 meters) of mud, but they got trapped outside in the deep sludge.

“It was sobering,” Miller said. “I saw them covered in mud and shaking from the cold.”

The path of the deluge was graphically illustrated on the side of a white colonial-style house, where a dark gray stain created a wavy pattern halfway up the front windows.

Cars were washed off roads, and one was deposited upside down in a tangle of tree limbs. In Los Angeles, a police cruiser got swamped in tire-deep mud.

A stretch of U.S. Highway 101 looked like a muddy river clogged with trees and other debris and was closed between Ventura County and Santa Barbara County. A kayak was marooned in the flotsam, and a Range Rover was buried up to its bumpers.

Some of the worst damage was on Montecito’s Hot Springs Road, where the unidentified girl was rescued and residents had been under a voluntary evacuation warning. Large boulders were washed out of a previously dry creek bed and scattered across the road.

A rescuer working with a search dog walked among the ruins of a house as the yellow Labrador wagged its tail and scrambled into a destroyed building, looking for anyone trapped inside. Its belly and paws were black from the mud.

The worst of the rainfall occurred in a 15-minute span starting at 3:30 a.m. Montecito got more than a half-inch in five minutes, while Carpinteria received nearly an inch in 15 minutes.

“All hell broke loose,” said Peter Hartmann, a dentist who moonlights as a news photographer for the local website Noozhawk.

“There were gas mains that had popped, where you could hear the hissing,” he said. “Power lines were down, high-voltage power lines, the large aluminum poles to hold those were snapped in half. Water was flowing out of water mains and sheared-off fire hydrants.”

Hartmann watched rescuers revive a toddler pulled unresponsive from the muck.

“It was a freaky moment to see her just covered in mud,” he said.

Hartmann said he found a tennis trophy awarded in 1991 to a father-son team his wife knows.

“Both of them were caught in the flood. Son’s in the hospital, dad hasn’t been found yet,” he said, declining to name them.

The first confirmed death was Roy Rohter, a former real estate broker who founded St. Augustine Academy in Ventura. The Catholic school’s headmaster, Michael Van Hecke, announced the death and said Rohter’s wife was injured by the mudslide.

Montecito is beneath the scar left by a wildfire that erupted Dec. 4 and became the largest ever recorded in California. It spread over more than 440 square miles (1,140 square kilometers) and destroyed 1,063 homes and other structures. It continues to smolder deep in the wilderness.

The storm walloped much of the state with damaging winds and thunderstorms. Downtown San Francisco got a record 3.15 inches (8 centimeters) of rain on Monday, smashing the old mark of 2.36 inches (6 centimeters) set in 1872.

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Heavy rain is drenching fire-ravaged southern California. And thousands of people are evacuating their homes because the rain is raising the risk of mudslides on hills stripped by the flames.

Some 21,000 people have evacuated in large swaths of southern California, according to The Associated Press, including vulnerable areas of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. That’s where the Thomas wildfire raged last month. It was the largest in California’s history, burning more than 280,000 acres and destroying more than 1,000 structures.

In Los Angeles County, several canyon areas are also under mandatory evacuation orders due to the heavy rains.

Just an inch of rain fell in southern California last month, drying out the ground, as reporter Danielle Karson tells our Newscast unit. In areas where the fire burned, there’s almost no ground vegetation. Meteorologist Joe Sirard tells Danielle that this can cause problems.

“When we get short-term heavy rain like we’re getting right now, it will build up debris in the mud in these areas and it comes right down the mountain,” Sirard says. “So it could be a dangerous situation.”

The National Weather Service is warning of the potential for flash flooding “for much of Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles Counties,” with rainfall rates as high as an inch and a half per hour.

Mud flows have already hit Montecito, in Santa Barbara County. “Heavy rains have triggered massive runoff,” Mike Eliason, a public information officer for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, said on Twitter. “Access is difficult/delayed to due to — at some locations — waist deep mudflow, trees, and wires down.”

Residents of vulnerable areas are also piling up sandbags to try to protect their homes. The AP reports that the Ventura County’s Sheriff’s Office says “jail inmates have been filling sandbags at the rate of 2,000 a day.”

And the California Highway Patrol has closed the coastal 101 freeway in both directions for “flooding and debris flows.” Topanga Canyon “was also closed in both directions due to a mudslide north of Pacific Coast Highway,” member station KPCC reports.

Authorities have also closed the Sepulveda Basin recreation area in the San Fernando Valley, which will cause closures on the nearby 405 freeway, according to the Los Angeles Police Department.

 

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