Death toll in California mudslides expected to rise, at least 13 dead

The number of people killed by mudslides in California is expected to rise from 13, but rescue efforts should become easier Wednesday after a powerful rainstorm heads west and skies clear, authorities said.

Rescue personnel in Santa Barbara County early in the morning continued searching for victims where mudslides slammed into homes, covered highways and swept away vehicles early on Tuesday when more than 15 millimetres of rain fell in five minutes, a rate that far exceeds the normal flash flood threshold.

“While we hope it will not, we expect this number to increase as we continue to look for people who are missing and unaccounted for,” Santa Barbara Sheriff Bill Brown of the death toll during a news conference on Tuesday.

California Storms

A K-9 search and rescue team walks into an area of debris and mud flow due to heavy rain in Montecito on Tuesday. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via Associated Press)

The upscale communities of Montecito and Carpenteria, just outside the city of Santa Barbara, were hardest hit. Over the past month California’s scenic coastline was ravaged by a series of intense wildfires that burned off vegetation.

On Tuesday, emergency workers using search dogs and helicopters to rescue 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 180 kilometres north of Los Angeles.

A 14-year-old girl was found alive after firefighters using rescue dogs heard cries for help from what was left of her Montecito home, the Los Angeles Times reported.

About 300 people were stranded in a canyon. Local rescue crews, using borrowed helicopters from the U.S. Coast Guard, worked to airlift them out, officials said.

Evacuation ordered

Heavy downpours struck before dawn on Tuesday after 7,000 residents in Santa Barbara County were ordered to evacuate and another 23,000 were urged to do so voluntarily, some of them for a second time since December.

The county set up an evacuation shelter at Santa Barbara City College, where some people showed up drenched in mud, and also provided a place for people to take their animals.

California Storms

Mud and debris flow down a road due to heavy rain in Montecito on Tuesday. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via Associated Press)

But only 10 to 15 per cent complied with mandatory orders, said Amber Anderson, a spokesperson for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

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 32 kilometres south of the latest disaster.

Last month’s wildfires, the largest in California history, left the area vulnerable to mudslides. The fires burned away grass and shrubs that hold the soil in place and also baked a waxy layer into the earth that prevents water from sinking deeply into the ground.

Some local residents had to flee their homes due to the fires last month and again this week because of the rains.

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