Teams of rescuers waded through hillsides blanketed by mud and debris looking for victims of mudflows that killed at least 17 people as the full scope of California’s deadliest flooding event in several decades came into grim focus.
As firefighters dug through battered homes, helicopters searched from the sky for survivors who might be trapped behind roads made impassable by downed power lines and waist-high muck. In the Romero Canyon area above Montecito, scores have been marooned since Tuesday morning.
As of Wednesday afternoon, 17 people remained missing. Officials fear the death toll could rise because firefighters have not yet been able to access some areas in the path of the debris flows. Intense rain Tuesday morning pounded steep terrain burned by the Thomas fire just weeks earlier, unearthing a wall of mud, rocks and debris that raced down creek beds so quickly that residents didn’t have time to get out of harm’s way. While Though no victims have been formally identified, the dead include some children.
The deluge destroyed at least 100 single-family homes, and damaged another 300 residences. An additional eight commercial properties had been wiped out as the mud flowed down through the upscale hillside community and onto the 101 Freeway, which is expected to remain closed through next week.
With gas, water and electricity knocked out in most of the area, rescue workers were concerned that many of those trapped could run short on supplies.
“A majority of Montecito and that whole area is in the Stone Age right now,” said Mike Eliason, public information officer for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. “We’re actively pursuing trying to get in there as quick as we can to get those people to safety.”
Frantic family and friends of the missing took matters into their own hands.
With a shovel in one hand, a man who asked to be identified only as Mikey smoked a cigarette and began removing mud and debris from the intersection of Hot Springs and Sycamore Canyon roads.
He had been out since 5 a.m. looking for his girlfriend’s missing sisters, Morgan and Sawyer Corey.
“They are good people,” he said with tears in his eyes. “I’m hoping to find them.”
As he waded through deep mud, Montecito resident Ben Ekler said his friend’s mother and two children were swept away during Tuesday morning’s deluge. The mother and one of the children were found and are recovering at a hospital, he said. But the other child is still missing.
“I thought we could help and do something,” Ekler said. “But nothing remains of their house.”
Social media posts sought information about a missing woman, Fabiola Benitez, and her son. Friends said the woman’s house was destroyed in the deluge. Benitez’s husband and another son were taken to a hospital, but the woman and her younger child had not been heard from.
Some of the searches had happy endings.
Sally Mobraaten, 56, arrived at an evacuation center at Santa Barbara City College on Monday night desperately looking for her her missing 86-year-old mother. She believed her mother had been evacuated but could not find her.
Nearly in tears, Mobraaten spoke with a Red Cross volunteer outside the shelter.
“I’m not sure where she could be,” the volunteer said.
Mobraaten decided to head toward a Vons on Coast Village Road where the National Guard had been dropping people off.
Along the way she called hotels in Santa Barbara to see if her mother was there. She had no luck. But in the Vons parking lot she saw an elderly woman wearing a red rain coat and a white hat.
“Thats my mother!” she shouted.
With the engine of her SUV still running, Mobraaten jumped out, ran to her mother and gave her a kiss.
The mudslides began around 2:30 a.m. Tuesday, when residents in their path were likely asleep. A number of homes were ripped from their foundations, with some pulled more than half a mile by water and mud before they broke apart.
Some of the hardest hit areas in Montecito were outside the burn scar of the Thomas fire and not subject to mandatory evacuations, Eliason said. Soil scorched by wildfires is less able to absorb water, which increases the chance it will be dislodged and cause a mudslide.
Helicopters and rescue workers from the U.S. Coast Guard and National Guard, as well as firefighters and helicopters from fire departments in Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties, have all descended on Montecito since Tuesday, Eliason said. An airship with night-vision capabilities hovered over the damage late Tuesday night into Wednesday morning, as rescue crews refused to spare a minute in their search.
Helicopters with hoist capabilities had begun making runs into Romero Canyon to rescue people, Anderson said. Ground crews were also making slight progress in clearing roadways leading toward Highway 192 and the Birnam Wood Golf Club, which were only accessible by air on Tuesday, authorities said.
Many were concerned that last month’s wildfires had made the area ripe for dangerous mudslides. But some residents said the exhaustion of being chased from their homes made them hesitant to evacuate a second time.
Along Eleven Oaks Lane, David Cradduck, 66, was trying to shovel shin-high mud away from his home. In 34 years living in Montecito, he had never seen anything like Tuesday morning’s deluge.
“Mother Nature came back and dealt us a big blow, but it’s our fault,” he said. “We should have heeded the warning.”
When she first stepped out of her home Tuesday, Maude Feil said her Montecito Shores neighborhood looked “like an apocalypse happened.”
Feil had to evacuate during the Thomas fire and said she was worried that survivors who managed to get through the wildfire unscathed may have lost everything they own in Tuesday’s debris flows.
“I’ve never been so close to a fire in my whole entire life, then this,” she said. “People who didn’t lose their house in the fire — they just lost huge things in the mud.”
As she moved around the area, careful not to slip in the mud, she recalled a grim discovery she made Tuesday among the wreckage. As she tried to look around her battered neighborhood, Feil said she spotted what she initially thought was a mannequin beneath railroad tracks.
“It was a woman’s body,” she said.
Mejia and Etehad reported from Montecito. Queally reported from Los Angeles.