Heavy rains triggered freeway closures throughout the region Tuesday and unleashed mudflows in areas ravaged by wildfires last month, shutting down more than 30 miles of the 101 Freeway and leaving at least five people dead as rescue personnel scrambled through clogged roadways and downed trees, officials said.
At least five people had died in the area of Montecito after a heavy band of rain struck around 2:30 a.m. causing “waist-high” mudflows, according to Mike Eliason, a public information officer for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. The mudflows knocked three homes from their foundations and left fire personnel rushing to free people trapped in vehicles and homes, according to Eliason, who said a child was among those injured.
Additional details about the deaths were not immediately available.
Emergency crews in the area have also received numerous unconfirmed missing-person reports, Eliason said.
“We’re still hoping that’s not the case,” he said.
Around 8:30 a.m., Eliason said rescue crews were trying to save a man trapped inside a home that had been pushed into a row of trees. At least three structures had been “completely wiped away,” he said.
The highest preliminary rainfall total appeared to register at roughly 5 inches in a gauge north of Ojai in Ventura County, in the burn area of the Thomas fire, which forced evacuations and destroyed homes last month, according to the National Weather Service in Los Angeles.
The 101 Freeway was shut down in both directions for more than 30 miles in the Thomas fire burn area because of flooding and debris flow, spanning an area from Santa Barbara to Ventura, according to the California Highway Patrol. Highway 33 also has been closed between Fairview and Rose Valley roads north of Ojai, according to the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department.
In Los Angeles County, one person was killed when a big rig overturned in the northbound lanes of the 5 Freeway near Los Feliz, said Saul Gomez, public information officer for the California Highway Patrol’s Southern Division. All northbound lanes were closed as of 4 a.m., though Gomez said police were hoping to reopen the roadway by 8 a.m.
The victim, who was not identified, was approximately 60 years old, Gomez said. No one else was injured. While the accident happened as rain fell across Los Angeles County, Gomez said he could not confirm the crash was storm-related.
Santa Barbara County officials evacuated nearly 7,000 residents from foothill communities shortly before the heaviest surge hit the area, according to Kelly Hoover, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office. But not everyone heeded that call. Around 3 a.m., she said, the storm became ferocious.
“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,” she said. “We have people stuck in their homes, stuck in their cars. There’s downed power lines, flooded roadways, debris.”
Hoover said the shutdown of the 101 Freeway was heavily hindering rescue efforts.
“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.”
By 8:30 a.m., the county’s dispatch center had at least 50 calls pending, she said. The U.S. Coast Guard sent rescue helicopters with hoist capabilities into the area on Tuesday morning, she said.
In Los Angeles, city fire officials also launched a swift-water rescue to aid a man and a dog trapped in rising water near the Sepulveda Basin Recreation Area.
Flooding in that area has caused road closures at Burbank Boulevard near the 405 Freeway and at the intersection of Hayvenhurst Avenue, the LAPD said. An LAPD cruiser became mired in a debris flow on La Tuna Canyon Road, according to authorities. The officer was uninjured and walked out of the vehicle. The cruiser was in the process of being dug out of the mud with a backhoe early Tuesday.
Also in Los Angeles County, a mudslide caused officials to close Topanga Canyon Boulevard, just north of Pacific Coast Highway, early Tuesday, and Burbank police were reporting “mudslide activity” that had dumped heavy debris onto Country Club Drive. The northbound lanes of the 110 Freeway near Redondo Beach Boulevard also have been closed because of flooding, the CHP said.
The CHP also said heavy rains likely contributed to a crash that left one person dead on Highway 126 in Ventura County, about 2 miles from the Los Angeles County line, on Monday afternoon. One woman died and two others were injured in the five-car crash, the agency said.
The National Weather Service was reporting rainfall totals of up to 4½ inches in Ventura County and 3 inches in Santa Barbara County as of 6 a.m. Nearly 1½ inches of rain had fallen in Bel Air, which could be susceptible to mudslides and debris flow because of damage caused by the Skirball fire last month.
Vast swaths of Southern California became subject to evacuation orders Monday as the powerful rainstorm was forecast to release a deluge on areas ravaged by wildfires last month. The heaviest rainfall was expected to hit Tuesday morning.
In Los Angeles County, sheriff’s deputies went door to door Monday alerting residents about the orders in Kagel, Lopez and Little Tujunga canyons. Those who refused to leave said they had to sign a form saying they understood the risk.
Residents in burn zones in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, along with an area of Duarte, also were ordered to leave, while those in the Corona and Burbank burn areas were put on notice that they may have to evacuate if conditions worsened.
When a fire sweeps through an area, it not only burns the vegetation but damages the soil itself. The intense heat makes the soil unable to absorb water the way it normally would.
In Montecito, some residents said they had shrugged off dire warnings about the rainstorm before waking up to the morning mess.
“I woke up ready this morning to laugh and scoff at all the gloom-and-doom predictions,” said Dominic Shiach, 50. “It’s actually way worse than I thought it was going to be.”
Shiach wore a Navy raincoat as he walked Archie, his 3-year-old West Highland terrier, down Sycamore Canyon Road on Tuesday morning.
Amber Anderson with the Santa Barbara Incident Management Team said there were about 75 people who called for help for evacuations.
They, like Shiach, did not heed the warning to evacuate Monday.