At least five people were killed Tuesday after a powerful winter storm drenching Southern California sent mud and debris streaming down wildfire-scarred hillsides and into several neighborhoods, some of which house lavish celebrity homes.
The deaths were reported in the Montecito and Carpinteria areas northwest of Los Angeles, which were severely hit by flooding and a debris flow, Amber Anderson with the Santa Barbara Office of Emergency Services confirmed to Fox News. The Coast Guard said it is providing three to four air ships for rescue operations, but will not conduct air rescue missions if there are drones in the area.
There have been multiple rescues throughout the day in Montecito, known for its star power, as the enclave boasts the mansions of Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres and several other celebrities.
“I’ve love being part of the Montecito community,” DeGeneres wrote on Twitter. “I send love to all the families and the amazing rescue workers braving these mudslides.”
Actor Rob Lowe said on Twitter he was “praying for all our friends and neighbors,” adding it was a “very bad situation in Montecito.”
Mike Eliason, a public information officer with the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, said the heavy rains triggered “massive runoff.”
“Heavy rains have triggered massive runoff in the Montecito area,” Eliason wrote on Twitter. “Multiple rescues from vehicles and structures are underway. Access is difficult/delayed due to-at some locations-waist deep mudflow, trees, and wires down. Avoid the area.”
The Santa Barbara Fire Department told KEYT-TV at least three homes have been destroyed by a mud and debris slide in the area of Hot Springs Road. One man was also rescued from mud that was up to his neck, Santa Barbara County Fire Captain Dave Zaniboni told KEYT.
Greg Villeneuve, who is staying at the Montecito Inn in Santa Barbara while in the area on business, told Fox News on Tuesday the skies have cleared up but mangled cars, tress, and branches are littering the area.
“I’ve been coming to Santa Barbara for 17 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said.
Villeneuve said the 101 Freeway located near the hotel is flooded with several feet of water, and the National Guard has showed up in trucks to assist first responders.
There are rescues currently underway in Montecito, Carpinteria and in neighboring Ventura County, Anderson told Fox News. A gas leak caused a structure to catch fire above Montecito, but is still unknown if anyone was injured in that blaze, according to Anderson.
Zaniboni told KEYT that “multiple” homes were destroyed and residents are unaccounted for in neighborhoods below hillsides scarred by recent fires. The television station also showed a body being loaded into a military-style truck on a mud-covered street.
Firefighters in Montecito were able to rescue a 14 year-old-girl after she was trapped for hours inside a destroyed home, according to Eliason.
In Montecito, some residents told the Los Angeles Times they had shrugged off dire warnings about the rainstorm before waking up to the deluge.
“I woke up ready this morning to laugh and scoff at all the gloom-and-doom predictions,” Dominic Shiach told the newspaper. “It’s actually way worse than I thought it was going to be.”
In another Twitter post, Eliason posted pictures of firefighters rescuing two men and a woman from flood waters on Hot Springs Road in Montecito.
While it is still unclear if any celebrity homes were affected by the recent flooding and mudslides, several of those houses had close-calls when the Thomas Fire recently threatened the region. Winfrey, who recently fueled speculation over a possible 2020 presidential run after her speech at the Golden Globe Awards, said she returned to her home in Montecito on Jan 4.
“1st day back at home. Still smelling smoke.But grateful to have a home to come to and forever grateful to firefighters. #ThomasFire,” she tweeted.
The California Highway Patrol said US 101 northbound & southbound lanes were closed due to flooding and debris flows in the Thomas Fire burn area, located north of Ventura and south of Santa Barbara, and several freeways and highways were also closed in Ventura and Los Angeles Countirse due to mudslides.
The National Weather Service in Los Angeles said at least five inches of rainfall fell in the town of Ojai in Ventura County. The region about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles is located in the burn area of the Thomas Fire, which scarred the land last month and was the largest in California history.
The NWS said 0.54 inches of rain fell in 5 mins in Montecito and 1.11 inches of rain in 30-minutes at Carpinteria between 3:30 and 3:45 a.m. Santa Barbara County officials said the NWS has predicted more severe weather, heavy rain, and “possible flash flooding, mud and debris flows” in the area over the next several hours. “If you are in debris flow areas, leave now and go to high ground,” officials said.
Evacuations were ordered in those foothill neighborhoods Monday because of mudslide fears.
There was also a mudslide reported on La Tuna Canyon Road in Los Angeles, which caused several vehicles to get stuck in the mud, including a Los Angeles Police Department cruiser, according to FOX 11.
The first significant storm of the season soaked much of the state. Record-breaking rain fell on the San Francisco Bay region before the storm largely passed overnight, leaving diminishing showers there before dawn Tuesday. Stormy weather continued to the east in the Central Valley and Sierra Nevada.
A yearslong drought eased in the state last spring, but Northern California had a dry start to winter and hardly any measurable rain fell in the south over the past six months. The extremely dry conditions and high winds last year led to some of the most destructive blazes on both ends of the state.
Fox News’ Shira Bush and The Associated Press contributed to this report.