Chaos swept California’s Santa Barbara County on Tuesday after a powerful overnight storm hammered the region with heavy rains, leading to the deaths of at least five people and triggering multiple water rescues, authorities said.
Among the hardest hit places has been Montecito, a wealthy community sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean to the south and the Santa Ynez Mountains to the north, where “massive” runoff sent mud and debris slamming into homes, said Santa Barbara County Fire Department spokesman Mike Eliason.
The circumstances surrounding the deaths in Santa Barbara were not immediately known, but were connected to the storm, the Santa Barbara County sheriff’s and fire officials said.
Potential mudslides and floods force evacuations in California
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Eliason said debris ruptured a gas line in one neighborhood in Montecito, causing an unknown number of structure fires. Crews have found it difficult to reach the origin because of blocked roadways.
He told The Weather Channel that at least eight people have been rescued overnight from homes in Santa Barbara County. In one instance, a 14-year-old girl was saved from a “tangled mess of a house” that was swept away by raging floodwaters, Eliason said.
Emergency responders scrambled to attend to calls after some residents failed to heed earlier warnings to leave. Some motorists had to be rescued as the mud reached waist high in some pockets, Eliason added. There were no immediate reports of injuries, but more than 1,600 people in Santa Barbara County lost power, reported NBC affiliate KSBY .
A large swath of the state from San Diego to the Central Valley and east to the Sierra Nevada could see another 1 to 3 inches of rain through Tuesday, The Weather Channel reported. More than 5 inches of rain were collected in the Matilija Canyon rain gauge in Ventura County, according to the National Weather Service in Los Angeles, which issued a flash flood watch for Tuesday after storms rolled in Monday. Thousands of people in parts of Ventura and Los Angeles counties had been ordered to evacuate.
Related: Mudslide, flood threat prompts evacuations in Southern California
The NWS added that 1-1/2 inches could fall per hour Tuesday in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties — areas already affected by the so-called Thomas Fire last month and other recent wildfires stoked by dry Santa Ana winds.
Even if the steady rain dies down, forecasters said, flash flooding and debris flows will remain a threat for the next several hours.
Multiple rescues were reported Tuesday in California’s Santa Barbara County. Santa Barbara County Fire Department
Police tweeted that the 101 Freeway, a major artery that runs along the coast, was shut down from Sea Cliff in Ventura County to Milpas in Santa Barbara County because of the heavy downpour. Vehicles became trapped partially underwater with people needing to be pulled out, fire officials added.
“Residents living in or immediately downstream should take immediate precautions to protect life and property,” said an early-morning NWS advisory.
The year’s first major rainstorm is a test for parts of California where wildfire-ravaged land has lost crucial vegetation and left hillsides bare. The Thomas Fire is the largest wildfire in state history, fire officials have said, and burned more than 280,000 acres and killed at least two people since early December.
In Burbank, city officials said voluntary evacuations were recommended for neighborhoods near where the La Tuna Fire burned thousands of acres in September.
A police car is surrounded by a mudslide in the La Tuna fire burn area in Southern California. NBC News
Also making the conditions more dangerous are winds gusting as high as 70 mph through Tuesday night. The rain isn’t expected to taper off until early Wednesday.
Meanwhile, steady rains and high winds posed a messy Tuesday morning commute in Northern California, NBC Bay Area reported.
Already on Monday, San Francisco saw almost 2 inches of rain through the afternoon, making it the wettest calendar day since Dec. 11, 2014, according to The Weather Channel.
“We’re going from one natural hazard straight into another,” said Weather Channel meteorologist Danielle Banks.