Search and rescue efforts intensified Wednesday for hundreds of Montecito residents feared trapped in their homes after deadly walls of mud and debris roared down California hillsides stripped of vegetation by recent, ferocious wildfires.
The one-two punch of fire and downpour-fueled debris flows have debilitated the affluent, picturesque community of about 10,000 people. The slides have killed at least 17, destroyed an estimated 100 homes, and sent rescuers scrambling through the rubble searching for dozens who are missing.
“We have no idea where they’re at," Santa Barbara County spokeswoman Amber Anderson said of the missing people. "We think somewhere in the debris field."
Sheriff Bill Brown said the primary focus of first responders was "to evacuate those who are trapped and need help getting out." He said residents can shelter in place in their homes — adding that anyone moving about the area or face possible arrest.
The county fire department tweeted a photo of a mud-encased 14-year-old girl being rescued alive from the rubble of a Montecito home. Fire spokesman MIke Eliason said the girl had been trapped for hours.
Scores of homes have been destroyed or severely damaged, with search efforts focused on determining if their residents survived. Sheriff deputies and other first responders had to cautiously pick through debris to access shattered homes.
Helicopters, rescue dogs and swift-water rescue teams were aiding the search, which was slowed by closed roads and downed trees and power lines.
Numerous celebrities have homes in the area. Actor Rob Lowe said on social media that Oprah Winfrey's home was being used as a staging area for helicopter rescues.
"Mourning the dead in our little town tonight," Lowe said. "Praying for the survivors and preparing for whatever may come. #Montecito."
Winfrey posted a photo of mud in her backyard. "What a day!" she said, adding "Helicopters rescuing my neighbors. Looking for missing persons."
Ellen DeGeneres tweeted a photo of the debris-strewn street, addin that she didn't know the fate of her home.
"I’m heartbroken for our community of Montecito," she said. I’m devastated for the families who lost loved ones. I’m grateful to all the rescue workers. Please send love to Montecito.