Mudslides, boulders and tons of debris killed at least 13 people on Tuesday in communities along California’s scenic coastline 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 per cent complied with mandatory orders, said Amber Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, according to a Reuters report.
Emergency workers using search dogs and helicopters rescued dozens of people stranded in mud-coated rubble in the normally 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, blocking 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 said later in the day that it was not clear how many had been located.
About 300 people were stranded in a canyon. Local officials, using borrowed helicopters from the US Coast Guard, were working to airlift them out, Brown said.