Devastating mudslides that destroyed homes and trapped residents in Montecito on Tuesday occurred in an area that was not under mandatory evacuation orders, officials said.
Mud from a swollen creek slammed into homes in the 300 block of Hot Springs Road and nearby streets. Several people in Santa Barbara County died in the mudslides, but it's unclear how many were in the Montecito neighborhood.
The area was not directly in the Thomas fire burn zone, officials said. During the fires, the location was under voluntary evacuation because it was far south of the burn area, so officials issued only voluntary evacuation orders there Monday night as the storm approached.
But in a matter of minutes, pounding rain overwhelmed the south-facing slopes above Montecito and flooded Montecito Creek, which leads to the ocean. That sent mud and massive boulders rolling into neighborhoods.
"It's going to be worse than anyone imagined for our area," Santa Barbara County Fire Department spokesman Mike Eliason said. "Following our fire, this is the worst-case scenario."
Eliason and firefighters were on the ground in Montecito and had yet to make it north of Highway 192 — where mandatory evacuations had been issued the previous night. Instead, they spent the first hours of daylight making rescues near Montecito Creek north of the 101 Freeway. Many residents in the area had remained in their homes.
One person was found under the 101 overpass after a home a half-mile north was hit by floods and the person was carried away, Eliason said. The person's condition was unknown.
Crews rescued six people and a dog after four houses were destroyed. The mud lifted one residence off its foundation and carried it into trees, where it collapsed, Eliason said.
Firefighters used the jaws of life to cut their way into the home, where a firefighter heard muffled cries for help, Eliason said. A rescue dog pinpointed the location of a 14-year-old girl, and two hours later, the mud-covered teen was pulled free. Eliason said he did not know where her parents were.
A second 14-year-old girl was rescued from the same neighborhood and carried out of ankle-high mud in a basket by a half-dozen firefighters. One woman was found "in a debris field," Eliason said. Her condition was unknown.
The mud and boulders have blocked access north of Highway 192, and authorities have been relying on helicopters from the U.S. Coast Guard to hoist people out of inaccessible areas, he said. Officials had no estimate on how many people could be trapped or how many homes were damaged.
"We have heavy equipment that's trying to clear roadways of huge boulders as well as big power lines and trees," Eliason said.
The mandatory evacuation orders had focused on foothill communities of 7,000 residents above Montecito that were closer to the fire zone, said Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Kelly Hoover. But not everyone heeded that call before the rain started coming down hard at 3 a.m.
"We just had a deluge, a power surge of rain. And we had a report of a structure fire burning in the Montecito area, the San Ysidro area. And it just kept going downhill from there," Hoover said Tuesday morning. "We have people stuck in their homes, stuck in their cars. There's downed power lines, flooded roadways, debris."
By daybreak, 30 miles of the 101 Freeway were closed because of mudflows.
"There's no way to get from Ventura here, no way for us to get south," Hoover said. "We're encouraging people to stay off the roads if they're in an evacuation area."
Hoover said dispatchers were being flooded with calls for help.
By 8:30 a.m., 50 calls were pending, she said.
In Montecito, Marc Phillips slogged up and down East Valley Road in his mud-soaked jeans.
Phillips pointed at areas on Parra Grande Road where homes used to be. "It looks like there was never a house there, but it was."
"Technically, I was supposed to [evacuate] but my house is very high" from the street, Phillips said, thinking the people who lived closer to the creek would be in a worse situation than himself.
After hearing trees and houses being knocked down, and slogging though the mud, Phillips said, "I felt foolish for not evacuating."
Bridget Bottoms' footsteps splashed through the mud as she and other residents ran to move out of a bulldozer's way.
"Get over!" the driver yelled as he tried making his way down the muddy street.
"There's never been anything like this," Bottoms said.
12:35 p.m.: This post was updated with residents' comments.