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Death toll from slides rises to 17 with daybreak air rescues set to begin in Montecito

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Crews from Orange County Search and Rescue work to locate bodies along Olive Mill Road at Hot Springs Road in Montecito, Calif., on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

MONTECITO, Calif. — The death toll from massive debris flows that buried homes and cars under a torrent of mud and boulders rose to 17 in Montecito, where local personnel and the U.S. Coast Guard continued
rescue operations Wednesday afternoon.

About 300 people who were stuck in their homes in Montecito’s Romero Canyon neighborhood throughout the debris field were rescued Tuesday night. Authorities had said late Tuesday that residents were still stuck and that first responders planned to launch helicopter rescues at daybreak.

The mudslides began around 2:30 a.m. Tuesday, when intense rains dislodged boulders and caused heavy mudflow along hillsides that were scarred by the sprawling Thomas fire late last year. 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.

“It looked like a World War I battlefield,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said Tuesday.

At least 28 others had been reported injured, and 13 more are missing, officials said. Approximately 100 homes were destroyed and 300 were damaged in the mudslides, according to officials. Eight commercial properties were also destroyed, she said.

Officials have yet to publicly identify any of those killed in the mudslides. Mike Eliason, public information officer for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, said there were juveniles among the deceased.

With much of the area still inaccessible, officials have said they fear the number of people killed in the mudslides could rise.

Southern California was drenched Tuesday, but nowhere did the rainstorm inflict more pain than in Montecito, just weeks after the coastal community dealt with the devastating Thomas fire.

Some 500 firefighters from across the state rushed to help, with crews struggling through clogged roads, waist-deep mud and downed trees throughout the day in search of victims. Dozens of survivors were hoisted to safety in helicopters.

The rain overwhelmed the south-facing slopes above Montecito, flooding the creek and sending mud and boulders into residential neighborhoods, officials said.

At least 7,000 people have been evacuated from the area.

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, Eliason said.

An airship with night-vision capabilities hovered over the damaged area through the early morning hours. With the rain stopped, Eliason said rescue crews remained hopeful they could reach others who were trapped.

“The weather was favorable. Search and rescue is still very confident that we’re still in that window for rescue mode,” he said. “We’re actively pursuing trying to get in there as quick as we can to get those people to safety.”

Rescuing those trapped in Romero Canyon and reaching other homes that were made inaccessible by the mudslides was a priority, he said, because many of those people could be without crucial supplies.

The storm system that hit Southern California beginning Monday dumped more than 5 inches of rain on some parts of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, and officials had been concerned that sections of the state damaged by last month’s wildfires would be susceptible to heavy mudflows. Soil scorched by fire is less able to absorb water.

“A majority of Montecito and that whole area is in the Stone Age right now,” Eliason said. “There is no water. There is no gas. There is no electricity.”

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