By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Rescue crews using helicopters and dogs searched the hills around wealthy Santa Barbara, California, on Wednesday for people trapped or killed by rain-driven mudslides that left at least 15 people dead in the coastal community.
The area, sandwiched between the ocean and the sprawling Los Padres National Forest, is home to celebrities including Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres, who relish its natural beauty and proximity to sprawling Los Angeles.
But the wooded hillsides that once gave their estates a sense of seclusion were largely denuded by last year’s historic wildfires, setting the stage for the massive slides that slammed into homes, turned highways into raging rivers and shredded cars into nearly unrecognizable tangles of metal after heavy Tuesday rains.
“We’re finding people continuously,” said Yaneris Muniz, spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Joint Information Center. “We had a helicopter and several crews out all night, and now that it’s day, we’ll be able to intensify those searches.”
Officials have ordered residents in a large swath of Montecito to stay in their homes so that rescuers can better go about their work.
About 300 people were stranded in a canyon. Local rescue crews, using borrowed helicopters from the U.S. Coast Guard, worked to airlift them out, officials said.
The county initially ordered 7,000 residents to evacuate and urged another 23,000 to do so voluntarily, but only 10 to 15 percent complied with mandatory orders, said Amber Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.
“We don’t know how many additional people are still trapped,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said on the “CBS This Morning” program. “We know there are some, and we’re still making our way into certain areas of Montecito and the adjacent areas to determine if anyone is still there and still alive.”
The slides closed several historic hotels, including The Four Seasons Biltmore, which had just reopened on Monday after repairing damage from the wildfires. The courtyard of the 90-year-old Montecito Inn, built by silent movie actor Charlie Chaplin, was filled with a thick crust of debris driven by the slides.
The mudslides followed a violent rainstorm that dropped as much as 6 inches (15 cm) of precipitation in pockets northwest of Los Angeles, soaking ground that was left vulnerable after much of its vegetation burned in the state’s largest wildfire last month.
Winfrey posted a video on Instagram showing her wading through nearly knee-deep mud on her Montecito property.
“The house in back is gone,” she could be heard saying as she inspected the damage.
A 14-year-old girl was found alive on Tuesday after firefighters using rescue dogs heard cries for help from what was left of her Montecito home, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“I thought I was dead there for a minute,” the teenager Lauren Cantin, covered in mud, told NBC News after workers spent six hours rescuing her.
Weather forecasts called clear skies on Wednesday, giving emergency workers some relief.
Rescuers worked through the night using helicopters to lift more than 50 stranded residents from the mud.
The number of fatalities surpassed the death toll from a California mudslide on Jan. 10, 2005, when 10 people were killed as a hillside gave way in the town of La Conchita, less than 20 miles (30 km) south of the latest disaster.
Last month’s wildfires, including the Thomas Fire, which became the largest in California history, left the area vulnerable to mudslides. The fires burned away grass and shrubs that held the soil in place and also baked a waxy layer into the earth that prevents water from sinking deeply into the ground.
(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York, Rich McKay in Atlanta and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Jonathan Oatis)