(CNN) – Rescue workers searched through debris for survivors after tons of mud, trees and boulders swept away homes in Southern California this week, killing 17 people.
Heavy rains sent rivers of mud tumbling down hillsides Tuesday, demolishing homes in the affluent seaside community of Montecito weeks after the largest fire in the state charred vegetation in the area.
In addition to the fatalities, at least 17 people are unaccounted for, authorities said Wednesday. As residents await word on their loved ones, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said the priority is on finding survivors.
“Right now, our assets are focused on determining if anyone is still alive in any of those structures that have been damaged,” Brown told CNN affiliate KCAL.
Crews have completed a primary search of 75% of the debris field and more than 500 first responders and 10 dogs are looking for victims in Santa Barbara County.
Rescue workers are also using helicopters in a search that has been hampered by blocked roads, downed trees and power lines.
• Deadly storm: All 17 deaths were reported in Santa Barbara County, authorities said. An additional 28 people were injured in the county.
• Water: A boil water notice is in place for Montecito and Summerland.
• Destruction: Floodwaters and mudslides destroyed 100 homes and damaged 300 more residences in Santa Barbara County.
• Train service: Amtrak service in Santa Barbara is suspended through at least Thursday as the crew works to re-open the train tracks.
• Weather conditions: The storm that triggered the disaster has cleared out, giving way to sunny skies and temperatures in the upper 60s and 70s.
• Road closed: The debris also shut down parts of the oceanside US 101, a major thoroughfare connecting Northern and Southern California. It will remain closed until Monday.
Race against time
The storm hit hard between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. Tuesday. Between those times, sheriff’s office dispatchers handled more than 600 phone calls for help, Brown said.
In Montecito, rescuers scoured through mounds of mud, furniture and fallen trees to search for trapped victims.
Some got good news of disoriented loved ones rescued from the roof of their muddied, flooded home. But others were not so lucky.
Diane Brewer said she confirmed her friend, Josie Gower, 69, died after she opened her door and was swept away by the mudslide.
“It was always a full a life with Josie. Now, it’s just a hole,” she said.
Catholic school founder Roy Rohter, 84, and his wife, Theresa, were swept from their Montecito home. Rohter died, but Theresa was rescued, said Michael Van Hecke, headmaster of St. Augustine Academy in Ventura, which Rohter founded in 1994.
While authorities have not released the names of the victims, some of their relatives have confirmed their identities.
James and Alice Mitchell, an elderly couple from Montecito, are among those missing, their granddaughter, Sarah Weimer, told CNN on Wednesday.
Rebecca Riskin, the founding partner of Montecito real estate company Riskin Partners, is also missing, according to her relative, Lynne Creighton. Riskin began selling real estate in Los Angeles and moved to Montecito nearly three decades ago.
Before the storm hit, Santa Barbara issued mandatory evacuations for 7,000 people, including in parts of Carpinteria, Montecito and Goleta, which are below areas scorched by wildfires, county spokeswoman Gina DePinto said.
“While some residents cooperated with the evacuations, many did not. Many chose to stay in place,” said Brown, the sheriff.
Sheriff deputies spent Monday conducting door-to-door evacuations in the mandatory evacuation area. But the area where homes were destroyed, south of Highway 192, was not in a mandatory evacuation zone.
The rain hit fast Tuesday, landing on hillsides stripped of their vegetation by the massive blaze that started last month.
The Thomas Fire — the largest wildfire in California’s recorded history — has burned more than 281,000 acres in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties since it began in early December. It’s 92% contained, and officials don’t expect full containment until later this month.
Without the vegetation to make the terrain more resistant to mudslides when it rained Tuesday, boulders and other debris rolled down onto roads and communities.
Montecito and Carpinteria are especially vulnerable to mudslides because the steep terrain in some places goes from thousands of feet above sea level to sea level in “a matter of just a few miles,” said Tom Fayram, a deputy public works director with Santa Barbara County.
Mudslides are not uncommon to the area. In January 2005, a landslide struck La Conchita in Ventura County, killing 10 people.
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