LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Rescue crews with dogs and thermal-imaging equipment searched the hills around wealthy Santa Barbara, California, on Wednesday for up to two dozen people missing after rain-driven mudslides swept through the coastal community, killing at least 15.
Mudslides damaged historic hotels and the homes of celebrities including Oprah Winfrey, who relish the area sandwiched between the ocean and the sprawling Los Padres National Forest, for its natural beauty and proximity to sprawling Los Angeles.
But the wooded hillsides that once gave their estates a sense of seclusion were largely denuded by last year’s historic wildfires, setting the stage for the massive slides that slammed into homes, turned highways into raging rivers and shredded cars into nearly unrecognizable tangles of metal after heavy Tuesday rains.
Between 12 and 24 people who were believed to in the area at the time of the slides remained unaccounted for, said Chris Elms, a spokesman for state firefighters. About 500 law enforcement officers and firefighters were combing mud-covered neighborhoods, using dogs, helicopters and thermal imaging equipment to locate missing people.
“We are still very much in active search and rescue mode,” Elms said in a phone interview. The current death toll of 15 confirmed fatalities could rise, he warned.
”That’s a fear, Elms said. “We are still very hopeful that we will locate people alive.”
Officials have ordered residents in a large swath of Montecito to stay in their homes so that rescuers can better go about their work.
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.
The county initially ordered 7,000 residents to evacuate and urged another 23,000 to do so voluntarily, but only 10 to 15 percent complied with mandatory orders, said Amber Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.
The slides closed several historic hotels, including The Four Seasons Biltmore, which had just reopened on Monday after repairing damage from the wildfires. The courtyard of the 90-year-old Montecito Inn, built by silent movie actor Charlie Chaplin, was filled with a thick crust of debris driven by the slides.