MONTECITO, Calif. — Authorities confronting the overwhelming mudslides that swamped this area reported glimmers of hope Thursday, saying they had located more of those who were missing as grueling search efforts stretched into a third day.
This scenic stretch of Southern California, threatened just weeks earlier by the largest wildfire in state history, has been devastated since rainfall early Tuesday sent thick rivers of mud flooding through neighborhoods and streets, demolishing multimillion-dollar homes and leaving areas impassable.
At least 17 people have been killed, officials said, a toll that could still increase.
Still, even as many grapple with the destruction that has left some in the hospital in critical condition and others trapped in their homes with no clear way out, officials have found some positive signs.
There were eight people still missing on Thursday morning, a number that had fallen in half from the previous night, according to Santa Barbara County officials. (The county briefly reported that the number of missing had spiked to 48 people, a significant increase, but quickly said this was a clerical error.) A spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office described them as eight active missing persons cases.
Officials also said that fewer homes had been destroyed than initially believed, though far more had been damaged. By Thursday morning, Santa Barbara authorities said 65 homes had been destroyed, down from the 100 homes they reported the night before. Another 446 homes were damaged, up significantly from the 300 believed to be damaged on Wednesday night.
Things looked “apocalyptic” after the deluge, said Lindsey Reed, 33, who works as a bartender and server at the private Coral Casino Beach and Cabana Club in Santa Barbara.
“It’s terrifying, and you just have no control, and it’s taking out everything in its path,” she said of the flooding and mudslides.
Still, disasters have a way of uniting people, Reed said. She was out Wednesday checking on friends who have no power or cellphone service, and many others were also checking on each other and out with shovels to help dig.
“Everyone’s just coming together,” she said. “It’s pretty amazing to watch.”
People across the region said they encountered grim, difficult circumstances. At a news conference, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said hundreds of people have been rescued and evacuated, many hoisted out on aircraft. Hundreds of first responders had also responded to the scene, deploying dozens of helicopters and four water-rescue teams.
The human tragedy that has unfolded since overnight Tuesday has far exceeded the emotional punch of severe property damage. Families have been swept away, and rescued children who survived their parents remain in critical condition in a hospital whose staffers are also struggling with their own damaged property.
Churches became shelters for the thousands of evacuees, who may have no place to live for months. Thousands of others are without water or power and may remain so for days.
Brenda Bottoms, a Montecito resident, described on Wednesday the muddy handprints she saw on the sides of neighboring homes, which had been slammed and partly carried off by a fast-moving mudflow.
“This is a neighborhood,” Bottoms said, tears running down her cheeks. “You know the family with five kids that live right over there. And now everything’s gone.”
The mudslides marked a cruel postscript to the Thomas Fire, which burned for much of December, becoming the largest wildfire by area in California history. For weeks before Christmas, flames scorched the steep hills above Montecito, squeezed between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean northwest of Los Angeles, forcing 9,000 residents to evacuate.
Firefighters from across the state worked to save nearly all of Montecito’s houses, an achievement that city residents describe as nothing short of a miracle given the intensity of the offshore winds and the ferocity of the fire that burned through tinder-dry brush and tree stands in a rainy season without rain.
The blaze left the mountains bare, especially along the slopes and in the canyons just above Montecito, a stretch running from near Westmont College to roughly Romero Canyon, where a few hundred residents were trapped temporarily by the mudslides.
Those neighborhoods, which include the homes of Oprah Winfrey, Rob Lowe and other Hollywood stars, are now the most vulnerable. Evacuation orders were issued days before the predicted downpour this week, sparing many when the hillsides, no longer held together by brush and trees, spilled into the neighborhoods.
Ellen DeGeneres grew emotional when discussing on her talk-show how she and her wife, Portia de Rossi, were evacuated from their home. Winfrey, her neighbor and the focus this week of great political interest after her speech Sunday at the Golden Globes, spoke via facetime about what she saw at her own property.
Throughout Wednesday, residents who ventured outside witnessed the grim chore of search and rescue. Some crews had to be dropped into impassable areas by helicopter Wednesday, and the California National Guard has lent military vehicles that rescue officials say have proved invaluable.
On Para Grande Lane, near the base of Cold Spring Creek, Boris Romanowsky, 59, shook his head Wednesday as he surveyed the damage. Romanowsky, a former firefighter, said he refused to evacuate and was checking on neighbors who, like him, had no power or water.
“The noise was so loud you could hardly hear yourself think,” he said of how the destruction began. “We had fire on the eastern sky before sunrise and we had this train wreck of a river going through at the same time, and we had rain so loud that you could hardly see.”
Despite the forecasts for more rain in the coming weeks, he has no plans to leave.
“I monitor on a transistor radio,” he said. “I’ve been here since the first fire. I don’t evacuate.”
Peter Hartmann, a dentist who lives in Santa Barbara and works in Montecito, watched crews gingerly dig through mounds of mud, unsure of what they would find. At one point, he said, they pulled a 2- or 3-year-old girl from the mud who began breathing again as they cleaned her off.
Hartmann, a freelance photojournalist in his spare time, traversed the area on foot Wednesday, and he came across another group of search-and-rescue workers digging in the mud, this time with a tragic result.
“I think they just found another body,” he said. “The coroner came and took it away.”
Berman and Wilson reported from Washington. Avi Selk, Marwa Eltagouri and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report, which was first published Thursday morning and has been updated.