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Californians Evacuated Out Of Fear Of Mudslides Where Thomas Fire Scorched Land


It is a tragic cycle that people here in Southern California know well. After months of bone-dry conditions, heavy rains fell north of Los Angeles overnight exactly were the state's largest wildfire had recently burned the trees and vegetation off the hills. And that then led to mudslides and flows of debris. At least 13 people have been killed, many of them in the town of Montecito. Reporter Stephanie O'Neill is near there, and she joins us now. Hey, Stephanie.


MCEVERS: So what's the latest there? I mean, what can you tell us about exactly what happened in the case of these deaths?

O'NEILL: Well, officials, you know, have been calling this a worst-case scenario, which it really is here. First, you know, heavy rains struck last night in this burned out area. The Thomas Fire came through here, you know, last month. And so the hills are denuded. And you know, many of us in the central coast area, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, were awakened to our cell phones screeching a flash flood warning. I got one around 3:30 in the morning. And it was around that time that mudflows hit homes situated just below the burn area in Montecito.

And there are been dramatic rescue operations throughout the day involving dozens of trapped residents, including two 14-year-old girls. And of course many of them are injured. And then these mudflows have shut down travel throughout the area, including a 30-mile stretch of the 101 freeway. That's been closed. I got through part of it up to the town of Carpinteria, but my attempts to take back roads to Montecito failed because the roads here are just covered with debris, mud, mudslides. It's bad.

MCEVERS: Where are you in Montecito? And what are you seeing besides this debris on the roads?

O'NEILL: I'm actually in Carpinteria. I could not get through to Montecito because of what I'm looking at right now. The mudflow came through, and it was water and mud and boulders and stuff. So I'm - it's pretty bad because people can't get back into town. And we also - you know, occasionally rescue helicopters are flying overhead. It's all pretty shocking, you know, even to old-time residents like Toine Overgaag. He's president of Westerlay Orchids here in Carpinteria.

TOINE OVERGAAG: The amount of debris that's being pushed through the creeks is really remarkable. It's shocking. Paradon (ph) Creek has jumped right by the freeway. There's at least a hundred-foot field of debris 3, 4 feet deep.

O'NEILL: And that's what I'm looking at. There's some boulders, some burned out trees, other trees, just a lot of mud.

MCEVERS: I mean, as you said, this is the same area where the Thomas Fire already destroyed more than a thousand structures. Are the people who've had to evacuate now the same people who evacuated because of the fires?

O'NEILL: Yeah, a lot of them are. Dr. Robert Lom (ph) of Montecito and his wife, Annie (ph), were evacuated for 12 days during the fire, and they decided to stay last night despite a mandatory evacuation order. But they were safe. But the roads all around them - there's boulders. There's downed power lines. I have an 87-year-old friend, Rhoda Zook (ph), from Ventura. She got a call last night. She called me after that. I tried to get her to leave. She wouldn't because she was exhausted, too, from this evacuation event and all the emotional toll that everybody has been feeling. So everyone around here is feeling emotionally and physically exhausted by it all.

MCEVERS: Is this the end of it, or will it go on for a while?

O'NEILL: Well, you know, flash flood warnings will continue throughout the evening, so it's sort of wait and see what more will happen. But it looks like, you know, the rain is tapering off. So that's good news. We're in a severe drought, so we do need the rain, this little pocket of California. But it's good news now, I think.

MCEVERS: Reporter Stephanie O'Neill in Carpinteria, Calif., where a storm sent mud and debris into residential neighborhoods, thanks so much. Be careful.

O'NEILL: You're welcome. My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF IV THE POLYMATH'S "SETBACKS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Stephanie O'Neill