Rescue crews with dogs and thermal-imaging equipment are searching the hills around wealthy Santa Barbara, California for up to two dozen people missing after rain-driven mudslides swept through the coastal community, killing at least 15.
Mudslides damaged historic hotels and the homes of celebrities including Oprah Winfrey, who relish the area sandwiched between the ocean and the sprawling Los Padres National Forest, for its natural beauty and proximity to sprawling Los Angeles.
But the wooded hillsides that once gave their estates a sense of seclusion were largely denuded by last year's historic wildfires, setting the stage for the massive slides that slammed into homes, turned highways into raging rivers and shredded cars into nearly unrecognisable tangles of metal after heavy Tuesday rains.
Between 12 and 24 people who were believed to in the area at the time of the slides remained unaccounted for, said Chris Elms, a spokesman for state firefighters. About 500 law enforcement officers and firefighters were combing mud-covered neighbourhoods, using dogs, helicopters and thermal imaging equipment to locate missing people.
Officials have ordered residents in a large swath of Montecito to stay in their homes so that rescuers can better go about their work.
About 300 people were stranded in a canyon. Local rescue crews, using borrowed helicopters from the US Coast Guard, worked to airlift them out, officials said.