Roughly 25,000 people in California were ordered evacuated on Monday, including the entire town of Montecito and nearby areas of the Santa Barbara coast, due to heightened flood and mudslide hazards from a recent string of deadly storms, officials said.
Montecito and the surrounding areas are among 17 California regions where authorities worry a series of torrential downpours since late December could unleash deadly cascades of mud, boulders and other debris in hillsides stripped bare of vegetation by past wildfires.
The evacuation alert for Montecito, tweeted by the local fire department, came five years after heavy rains struck fire-scarred slopes and canyons around the affluent Southern California community, causing mudslides that killed more than 20 people in January 2018.
Among the nearly 9,000 residents of Montecito with opulent homes in the picturesque coastal enclave are such celebrities as media mogul Oprah Winfrey and Britain’s Prince Harry and his wife Meghan. It was not immediately clear whether they were among those forced to flee the area. Winfrey was known to have been in Hawaii over the New Year’s holiday.
All 15 districts of Montecito were ordered immediately evacuated along with portions of the city of Santa Barbara and adjacent areas of Carpinteria and Summerland where “burn scars” posed a threat of mudslides, the Montecito Fire Department said.
Los Angeles-area television station KTLA quoted fire officials as saying Montecito had received more than 5 inches of rain between 3 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. PT (1100 to 1730 GMT), with showers continuing the drench the region.
At least a dozen fatalities have been attributed to several back-to-back storms that have lashed California since Dec. 26, including a toddler killed when a redwood tree was blown over his family’s trailer home last week.
To the north along the central California coast, some 14,000 people were ordered evacuated early on Monday from four Santa Cruz County communities inundated with flash floods, extreme tides and heavy runoff from local mountains, said Brian Ferguson, a spokesperson for the state Office of Emergency Services.
Nearly 4,000 more people in the town of Wilton remained under evacuation orders due to flood threats from breached levees along the Cosumnes River south of Sacramento, the state capital. Another 42,000 residents of roughly a dozen counties were under evacuation warnings, Ferguson said.
The torrential rains, along with heavy snow in mountain areas, were the product of yet another “atmospheric river” of dense moisture funneled into California from the tropical Pacific, powered by sprawling low-pressure systems churning offshore.
Experts say the growing frequency and intensity of such storms, punctuating extreme, prolonged drought, are a symptom of climate change that will increase the challenge of managing California’s precious water supplies while minimizing greater risks of floods, mudslides and wildfires.
The six storms since just after Christmas have been accompanied by pounding surf that has battered seaside communities, as well as fierce, gale-force winds that have uprooted thousands of trees weakened by prolonged drought.
The National Weather Service (NWS) has warned the latest onslaught would impact most of California’s 39 million residents, with up to 5 inches of additional rain expected to fall near the coast and more than a foot of snow on the Sierra Nevada mountains over the next few days.
The high winds have wreaked havoc on the state’s power grid, knocking out electricity to tens of thousands of Californians. As of Monday morning, some 120,000 homes and business were without electricity, according to data from Poweroutage.us.
U.S. President Joe Biden has approved an emergency declaration authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to coordinate disaster relief efforts and mobilize emergency resources in California.