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‘Like a WWI battlefield’: 15 dead as mudslides wipe away homes in fire-ravaged Southern California

At least 15 people are dead in Southern California, after mudslides and floods swept away buildings and inundated roads on Jan. 9. (Video: Melissa Macaya, Taylor Turner/The Washington Post, Photo: Ventura County Sheriff's Office/The Washington Post)

MONTECITO, Calif. — Rescue teams battled through rain-sodden muck and debris Wednesday seeking to reach more areas ravaged by landslides that sent deadly torrents of mud and water over homes in Southern California. The death toll rose to at least 15, but the search was expanding and the figure could grow.

Crews from the Coast Guard and the National Guard joined the hunt along coastal hills previously devastated by wildfires — which left the slopes barren and unable to hold onto tons of soil and rocks dislodged by downpours.

About 25 people were injured, with many more in danger across the region as hills left barren after weeks of fires were transformed by rainstorms early Tuesday morning into fast-moving sheets of mud and debris.

“The only words I can really think of to describe what it looked like was it looked like a World War I battlefield,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon. “It was literally a carpet of mud and debris everywhere.”

At least 13 people have been killed in California mudslides and officials said that number is likely to increase as rescue workers comb through the debris. (Video: Reuters)

The number of dead rose Wednesday to 15, said Amber Anderson, spokeswoman with the Santa Barbara County Incident Management Team. All bodies were recovered near Montecito, a coastal community north of Los Angeles, where mudflows carried houses off their foundations and rose waist-high. A storm of mud descended on the town with no warning, officials said, surrounding houses and carrying a washing machine down one block.

“Obviously the focus is to get to people who may be injured . . . to get as many of those people evacuated from their homes as possible,” he said.

The Los Angeles Times photographed half a dozen first responders carrying a body across a ruined wilderness near the town’s Hot Springs Road.

Montecito and Carpinteria were the county’s worst-hit communities as of Tuesday afternoon, Anderson said. Evacuations had been ordered in both towns, she said — but only a small fraction of residents actually left.

By early Wednesday, Anderson said, the evacuation zones had been designated as exclusion zones, meaning “people can’t move or they’ll be arrested.”

About 8,000 people live in Montecito and about 13,000 live in Carpinteria. Downtown was covered in thick mud and debris as officials scrambled to search for stranded survivors. A Santa Barbara County fire official, who declined to provide his name because he did not have authorization to speak with reporters, described a scene out of a disaster movie.

“Inside the debris we’re finding bodies,” he said.

“This whole mountain has been burned, and anytime water hits, it’s not shedding into any bushes because they’re all burned. Any water that hits the surface is coming at us and causing debris and mud to flow. It’s probably going to happen again and again,” he said. “This is just the first storm. It’s probably going to happen again and again.”’

Many residents were caught off guard.

Shawn Monroe, 58, woke up about 3 a.m. Tuesday to a neighbor alerting people about the storm.

“Thankfully that woke me up, because there was water flooding into my apartment,” he said.

Monroe, who works as a caretaker at the Montecito Presbyterian Church, spent the next 10 or so hours trying to drive away from the mudslide but got stuck. Some roads, he said, were blocked by wreckage — a combination of mud, rocks and other debris, which included parts of houses that had been destroyed.

“Everywhere I turned there was chaos. I tried to get out every single way and there was no way out. I feel like I escaped,” Monroe said.

His neighbors might not have been so fortunate.

“Everyone’s up there, and no one can get out,” he said.

Elizabeth Terry, who lives in a boardinghouse in Los Angeles, said it was her third evacuation since 2016, having been forced from her home by wildfires previously.

Huddled in a white blanket at a Red Cross evacuation center in the Sun Valley neighborhood, she said she has “had more than enough” of the natural disasters and wants to move, but she can’t afford to.

“I’ve been trying now for over a year,” said Terry, 63.

In La Tuna Canyon, the site of one of the many fires that ravaged Southern California in December, small rivers of water coursed through the streets, with several closed off as crews operating bulldozers worked frantically to clear the mud and debris.

The coastal 101 freeway that connects Santa Barbara to Ventura, where December fires devastated huge swaths of land, was completely shut down for more than 30 miles. It appeared to be entirely submerged in some areas.

Boulders lay in the middle of roadways like street trash in parts of the region. A teenager in Montecito was found, alive, so caked in mud she looked nearly indistinguishable from the ruins she spent hours trapped inside.

Nearly 7,000 residents were evacuated from foothill communities in Santa Barbara County on Tuesday, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Emergency teams have performed 50 hoist rescues and several dozen rescues on the ground, officials said. Crews were working Tuesday afternoon to rescue 300 people trapped in Romero Canyon. Rain was expected to diminish by Tuesday night, and the weather for the rest of the week is forecast to be sunny and clear.

In the northern part of the state, Sonoma and Mendocino counties, where separate fires had destroyed entire neighborhoods and killed dozens of people last year, were put on watch for flash floods and slides.

But the worst of the weather has slammed Southern California, where some residents say natural disasters have become a part of life.

Barbara Hill, 68, who said her house is right next to the affected areas, said the region’s summers have become hotter and the droughts more severe.

“You know what they call the four seasons here?” she said. “Earthquake, drought, fire and flood. We went quickly from fire to flood.”

Photos of deadly mudslides in Southern California after devastating wildfires

A sign reading “Pray for Montecito” is placed on a wall in the aftermath of a devastating mudslide in Southern California. Most of the people of Montecito are under orders to stay out of town as gas and power were expected to be shut off for repairs. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Eltagouri reported from Washington. Ufberg reported from Montecito. Smith reported from Los Angeles. Eli Rosenberg and Avi Selk in Washington contributed to this report.

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