Some 500 firefighters and other rescue workers were searching debris spread across a wide area of Montecito, a wealthy area of about 9,000 people northwest of Los Angeles.
A strong winter storm hammered the region on the U.S. West Coast on Monday, bringing heavy downpours and sending mud and debris into residential neighborhoods before dawn on Tuesday. According to Santa Barbara County fire spokesman Mike Eliason, there were children among the deceased.
Emergency services said a number of people were unaccounted for and they expected the number of deaths to rise.
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"It was literally a carpet of mud and debris everywhere - with huge boulders, rocks, downed trees, power lines, wrecked cars", Mr Brown said. Montecito Oaks resident, Ben Hyatt said, "I woke up my wife and we just did not know what to do, we were just surrounded by mud".
Among them was a mud-caked 14-year-old girl who was pulled after hours trapped under the rubble of a collapsed home in Montecito.
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After the wildfire, burned vegetation and charred soil created a water-repellent layer that blocked water absorption and increased risk of mudslides and floods.
Roads have been closed and rescue operations are underway in Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties.
"Right now our assets are focused on determining if anyone is still alive in any of those structures that have been damaged", Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said. "This is how deep the mud is", she said while turning the camera on the backyard.
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