SANTA BARBARA COUNTY, Calif. -- The Southern California wildfires have led to a new natural disaster, destroying the trees and shrubs that form a natural barrier against mudslides.
Rapid-moving rivers of mud are now blamed for at least 13 deaths in Santa Barbara County homes were swept off their foundations. About 20,000 people have been ordered to evacuate.
At least 50 people have been rescued by helicopters in the area, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said in a Tuesday night news conference.
One by one, firefighters rescued victims from the muck and debris. They carried one teenage girl on a stretcher who had been trapped in her flooded home for hours. Survivors were driven to higher ground.
"This is the worst I've ever seen it. We thought that the fire was terrible, and this is absolute devastation," said Scott Groff, a Montecito resident.
In December, the Thomas Fire burned more than a quarter million acres. When the rains began, those barren hillsides exacerbated the problem. Homes and streets in the exclusive Montecito community were buried under feet of mud and debris.
It made for a nightmare morning commute as cars and trucks on several major roads got stuck in the mud.
On the normally busy 101 Freeway, up to 30 miles were shut down at one point. Some of the roadway was covered with debris and mud up to 3 feet deep.
"I'm driving down the road 60 miles an hour and the mudslide comes out of nowhere, out of the bushes here, and it comes out 3-4 seconds and hits my car, pushes me over 3-4 feet, almost against the railing," one resident said.
Mud slides also wreaked havoc in the Los Angeles area. Cars were swept down a canyon in Burbank, where authorities were concerned a 100-year-old catch basin would unleash more debris.
"I was packing my bags -- it took all of five minutes -- and when I was done packing my bag, the street was completed flooded," said Sean Johnston, a Burbank Resident.
Further north, a fast-moving mud flow literally shook Damian Franco out of bed.
"It sounded like thunder and the whole house was shaking, like an earthquake," Franco said. "It was just the big boulders rolling down the creek."
The small creek is now a raging river, overrunning the road with piled-up trees. There's even a Mercedes stuck in the branches. The storm is forecast to clear on Wednesday, but it will likely take weeks clean up the mess it left behind.
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