Heavy rains unleashed destructive rivers of mud and debris on Tuesday morning in southern California – leaving at least five dead, destroying homes and spurring rescues as the flooding forced heavily traveled roads to close.
At least six homes near the coastal community of Montecito were “wiped away from their foundations” by mudflow and debris, said Santa Barbara County fire spokesman Mike Eliason.
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.
Ben Hyatt told CNN a river of mud had crashed early Tuesday 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 back yard. 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 US Route 101 closed in Ventura County, said the sheriff’s office there Tuesday morning. A stew of water, garbage and tree limbs flooded one part of US 101 between Montecito and Carpinteria, showed images from KERO.
- At least five people have been killed in the storms, said Santa Barbara County spokeswoman Amber Anderson, without offering further details.
- By early Tuesday, more than 4 inches of rain had fallen over two days in parts of Ventura County and, at times, it came down with overwhelming speed.
- The rate was more than 1.5 inches per hour on Tuesday morning in parts of southern California, said the National Weather Service.
- Thousands of people in southern California were under evacuation orders because of flooding and mudslide fears ahead of the storm, including in Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties.
- Firefighters so far have rescued eight people in Montecito and the “numbers are expected to go up significantly,” Eliason said.
“Mud came in an instant, like a dam breaking”
Hyatt said his house in Montecito 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. local time. 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.”
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.
More than 1 inch of rain per hour
The rainfall rate of more than 1.5 inches per hour on Tuesday morning in parts of southern California overwhelmed the landscape. Only 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 percent contained Tuesday, and officials don’t expect full containment until later this month.
The cruel irony is the region has suffered from years of drought, and officials said they need the rain to regrow plants and trees that help keep the hillsides together and flood-proof.
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.
Thousands ordered or encouraged to evacuate
Knowing this week’s rains likely were trouble, officials ordered evacuations for thousands of people ahead of time.
In Santa Barbara County, more than 6,000 people were under mandatory evacuation orders, including residents in parts of Carpinteria, Montecito and Goleta, located below areas scorched by the wildfires over the past year and a half, including the Thomas Fire, said county spokeswoman Gina DePinto.
Voluntary evacuation warnings were in effect for another 20,000 people, including others in those same communities, she said.
Los Angeles County officials issued mandatory evacuation orders for about 300 homes in the Kagel Canyon, Lopez Canyon and Little Tijunga Canyon, areas affected by the Creek Fire. Police and fire officials in Los Angeles helped with evacuations in areas damaged by the Creek and Fish fires, officials said.
Ventura County also issued both mandatory and voluntary evacuations for several communities.