15 dead in California mudslides; crews search for missing, stranded

View from the air in Montecito, Calif., shows areas impacted by a large amount of mud and debris flows due to heavy rainfall. Photo courtesy of Ventura County Aviation Unit/Twitter

Jan. 10 (UPI) — The death toll has risen to 15 and a number of residents remain unaccounted for Wednesday after a powerful storm caused debris flows that wiped away homes and flooding that prompted rescues throughout the Los Angeles area.

Santa Barbara County Sheriff confirmed the number of fatalities and said search-and-rescue efforts were underway in Santa Barbara County to locate people who may be alive and trapped.

Dozens of stranded residents have been rescued by helicopter in areas of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties — some from their vehicles and others from rooftops.

More than 5 inches of rain have fallen in Ventura County, according to the National Weather Service in Los Angeles, which said rainfall rates were “unprecedented.” A rain gauge at the Carpinteria Fire Department recorded a half-inch of rain in just five minutes.

The US 101 Freeway at the Olive Mill Road overpass flooded with runoff water from Montecito Creek.

The heavy rains have been dangerous because vegetation is missing — burned away by the Thomas Fire — that would normally help channel the water and mud flow. Hardened soil left behind from the wildfire repels water, increases stream levels and brings water to areas it typically wouldn’t go.

The Santa Barbara County sheriff said emergency dispatchers received about 600 calls immediately after the rains began early Tuesday. Six homes near Montecito were “wiped away from their foundations” by mudflow and debris, according to a Santa Barbara County fire spokesman.

Television personality Oprah Winfrey, who owns a home in Montecito, awoke Tuesday to a gas-fueled fire in her neighborhood, mud piled deep in her back yard and a neighbor’s house destroyed.

The weather forecast on Wednesday shows sunny skies for the next several days, which might help with rescue efforts.

Victim who was swept away in their vehicle was located by the crew of AirSquad6. Victim was hoisted and flown to awaiting ground personnel.

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