Mudslides, boulders and cascading debris killed at least 13 people on Tuesday in an area of Southern California’s Pacific Coast ravaged by a series of intense wildfires that burned off protective vegetation last month.
Heavy downpours struck before dawn on Tuesday after thousands of residents in Santa Barbara County along the Pacific coast north of Los Angeles were ordered to evacuate or urged to do so voluntarily, some of them for a second time since December. But only 10 to 15 percent complied with mandatory orders, said Amber Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.
Emergency workers, using search dogs and helicopters, have rescued dozens of people stranded in mud-coated rubble in the pristine area, sandwiched between the ocean and the sprawling Los Padres National Forest, about 110 miles north of Los Angeles. The upscale communities of Montecito and Carpenteria, just outside the city of Santa Barbara, were hardest hit.
The mudslides toppled trees, demolished cars and covered blocks of quiet residential neighborhoods with a thick layer of mud, and blocked Highway 101, a major north-south route along the coast.
“The best way I can describe it is, it looked like a World War One battlefield,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said at a news conference.
The death toll could rise, with rescue workers still picking through dozens of damaged and demolished homes in the search for survivors, Brown said. At one point on Tuesday, at least two dozen people were missing, but Brown did not know how many were still missing.
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 (32 km) south of the latest disaster.
The threat of mudslides had prompted the county to order 7,000 residents to leave their homes ahead of a powerful rainstorm and to urge 23,000 others to evacuate voluntarily.
About 300 people were stranded in a canyon. Local officials, using borrowed helicopters from the U.S. Coast Guard, were working to airlift them out, Brown said.