MONTECITO, Calif. — At least eight people were killed Tuesday when a rainstorm sent mud and debris coursing through Montecito neighborhoods and left rescue crews to scramble through clogged roadways and downed trees to search for victims.
The deluge that washed over Santa Barbara County early Tuesday was the worst-case scenario for a community that was ravaged by the Thomas fire only a few weeks earlier. In just a matter of minutes, pounding rain overwhelmed the south-facing slopes above Montecito and flooded a creek that leads to the ocean, sending mud and massive boulders rolling into residential neighborhoods, according to Santa Barbara County Fire Department spokesman Mike Eliason.
"It's going to be worse than anyone imagined for our area," he said. "Following our fire, this is the worst-case scenario."
Eight people were killed and at least 25 were injured after a heavy band of rain struck around 2:30 a.m. causing "waist-high" mudflows, according to Kelly Hoover, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office. She could not offer any specifics about the deceased, except that all eight had died in Montecito.
The mudslide struck a section of the city that is south of the Thomas fire's burn area and was not subject to a mandatory evacuation, Eliason said. Rescue personnel have yet to even make it north of Highway 192, which is closer to soil scorched by last month's wildfire. Burned areas are less capable of absorbing water, making them even more susceptible to flooding and mudslides.
Officials had no estimate on how many people could be trapped or how many homes were damaged. The search for survivors was still underway Tuesday afternoon, with many places inaccessible.
"We'll definitely have more," Eliason said, referring to deaths.
Instead, emergency crews spent the first hours of light making rescues in voluntary evacuation zones near Montecito Creek north of U.S. 101.
In the 300 block of Hot Springs Road, crews rescued six people and a dog after four homes were destroyed. The mud lifted one home off its foundation and carried it into trees, where it then collapsed, Eliason said. Firefighters cut their way into the home where a firefighter heard muffled cries for help from a 14-year-old girl, Eliason said.
A rescue dog pinpointed the girl's location and two hours later, the mud-covered girl was pulled free. A second 14-year-old girl was also rescued from the same neighborhood and carried from ankle-high mud in a basket by half a dozen firefighters.
The U.S. Coast Guard also sent rescue helicopters into the area Tuesday morning, hoisting several people from collapsed homes or rooftops that stood above swirling mud and water. Rescue personnel were also able to save a young boy who was swept more than half a mile south from his house after the building was lifted from its foundation in Montecito, authorities said.
The boy was found alive under a U.S. 101 overpass, authorities said. But his father remains unaccounted for.
The highest preliminary rainfall total appeared to register at roughly 5 inches in a gauge north of Ojai in Ventura County, in the burn area of the Thomas fire, which forced evacuations and destroyed homes last month, according to the National Weather Service in Los Angeles. With heavy showers still forecast, flash flood warnings remained in effect for Santa Barbara County and southern Ventura County through Tuesday afternoon, according to the NWS.
The 101 Freeway was shut down in both directions for more than 30 miles in the Thomas fire burn area because of flooding and debris flow, spanning an area from Santa Barbara to Ventura, according to the California Highway Patrol. Sections of Routes 33 and 150 were also closed in Ventura County, according to the Sheriff's Department. There was no estimate for when the roadway might reopen, a California Department of Transportation spokesman said Tuesday afternoon.
In Los Angeles, one person was killed when a big rig overturned in the northbound lanes of the 5 Freeway near Los Feliz, said Saul Gomez, public information officer for the California Highway Patrol's Southern Division.
The victim, who was not identified, was approximately 60 years old, Gomez said. No one else was injured. While the accident happened as rain fell across Los Angeles County, Gomez said he could not confirm the crash was storm-related.
Santa Barbara County officials evacuated nearly 7,000 residents from foothill communities shortly before the heaviest surge hit the area, according to Hoover. But not everyone heeded that call.
Santa Barbara County officials put a boil water notice in effect for the entire Montecito Water District on Tuesday afternoon.
In Los Angeles County, there was "mudslide activity" on Country Club Drive in Burbank, where police ordered evacuations of all homes east of Montana on Tuesday morning. The Burbank Police Department released footage of water surging across a roadway and urged people not to attempt to drive over it. Some vehicles were picked up and moved by the surge, and a few homes suffered minor damage, but no one had been injured as of 1 p.m., according to Sgt. Derek Green, a Burbank police spokesman.
Surges also washed out Topanga Canyon Boulevard north of Pacific Coast Highway, and sections of the 110 Freeway were closed because of flooding. The Los Angeles Fire Department had to launch a swift-water rescue to aid a man and a dog trapped in rising water near the Sepulveda Basin Recreation Area, and an LAPD cruiser became mired in a debris flow on La Tuna Canyon Road, according to authorities. The officer was uninjured and walked out of the vehicle. The cruiser was in the process of being dug out of the mud with a backhoe Tuesday.
International travelers arriving at Los Angeles International Airport also had to be diverted from Terminal 2 on Tuesday morning, after the customs area became flooded, the airport said on Twitter.
The storm spared some areas that were affected by last month's blazes. Early Tuesday afternoon, evacuation orders for neighborhoods in the burn areas of the Creek and Fish fires were lifted, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
In Montecito, some residents said they had shrugged off dire warnings about the rainstorm before waking up to the morning mess.
"I woke up ready this morning to laugh and scoff at all the gloom-and-doom predictions," said Dominic Shiach, 50. "It's actually way worse than I thought it was going to be."
Shiach wore a Navy raincoat as he walked Archie, his 3-year-old West Highland terrier, down Sycamore Canyon Road on Tuesday morning.
Amber Anderson with the Santa Barbara Incident Management Team said there were about 75 people who called for help for evacuations.
Marc Phillips realized he should have listened to emergency officials as he trudged down East Valley Road in mud-soaked jeans.
"They were right" he said, pointing to a place where residences had been knocked from their foundations. "It looks like there was never a house there, but it was."
(Livingston reported from Montecito. Queally and Serna reported from Los Angeles.)