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5 years after a deadly mudslide, Montecito residents are urged to evacuate as torrential rains pose another risk

<i>Matt Udkow/Santa Barbara County FD.</i><br/>Aerial photos taken aboard Santa Barbara County Air Support Unit's Fire Copter 308 shows mudflow and damage in Montecito in 2018.
Matt Udkow/Santa Barbara County FD.
Aerial photos taken aboard Santa Barbara County Air Support Unit's Fire Copter 308 shows mudflow and damage in Montecito in 2018.

By Nouran Salahieh, CNN

The entire town of Montecito, California, was told to evacuate as a storm battered the state Monday — the same day the community marked the five-year anniversary of a major mudslide that killed 23 people in 2018.

Residents of Montecito — a small town of only about 8,200 locked between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean — fled their homes as heavy rains threatened to bring mudslides and debris flows like the ones that wrought havoc on the Santa Barbara County community five years ago.

A community remembrance event had been planned to honor the lives lost on January 9, 2018, when mud and boulders the size of houses plowed down the Santa Barbara hillsides, splintering more than 100 homes and rupturing a gas main, according to the state’s Office of Emergency Services.

But instead, the event was canceled as the storm approached and first responders spent the day calling for evacuations and responding to flooded roadways.

“This is a challenging day,” Montecito Fire tweeted.

“It is normal to experience feelings of fear, anxiety & sadness as we approach the 5-year mark of the 1/9 Debris Flow, especially with the current weather conditions & evacuation order,” the fire department said in another tweet last week.

Montecito received a whopping 9.89 inches over 24 hours as the latest in a series of atmospheric rivers hit the region Monday, turning streets into rivers, toppling trees, shuttering major roadways and prompting numerous water rescues.

Santa Barbara County, which includes Montecito, was particularly hit hard Monday. Crews responded to more than 200 incident calls due to the heavy rains, according to Captain Scott Safechuck, spokesperson for a Santa Barbara County Incident Management Team.

In addition to Montecito, evacuations were called for residents in parts of Carpinteria, Summerland and the city of Santa Barbara.

“LEAVE NOW! This is a rapidly evolving situation,” Santa Barbara County officials said, warning residents to “be prepared to sustain yourself and your household for multiple days if you choose not to evacuate.”

By the evening, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown asked county residents to shelter in place as travel became a nightmare with rockslides, flooded roads and closed highways.

5 years ago, a storm brought tragedy to Montecito

It was the Thomas Fire that set the stage for the devastation that befell the community in 2018.

The fire — which at the time was the largest wildfire in California history — started December 4, 2017, and burned in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, eventually charring more than 281,000 acres.

Land that would have been able to absorb heavy rainfall became sensitive and at risk of mudslides.

Then, when a powerful winter storm moved in, mud and debris loosened from burn-scarred areas in the Santa Ynez Mountains and came barreling down to Montecito.

What had been roadways, driveways and homes, became unrecognizable mud-covered rivers. Crews spent days slogging through mud and debris searching for people.

Those lost in the mudslides included young children, a school founder, a real estate broker, a married couple and several others.

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CNN’s Cheri Mossburg contributed to this report.

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