After devastating wildfires came deadly mudslides. Here's what makes them so treacherous

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Run-off from heavy rain caused devastation in Santa Barbara County, with officials saying mud was waist-deep in some areas.

"The neighbors out back - their houses are gone, just gone". Teams have completed initial searches of the entire debris field and are about a quarter of the way through a more intensive secondary search of the zone, Anderson said.

USA 101 Freeway at the Olive Mill Road overpass flooded with runoff water from Montecito Creek and blocked with mudflow and debris following heavy rains in Montecito, Calif., Jan. 9, 2018.

Similar issues emerged in last year's wine country wildfires in Northern California, where at times thousands were reported missing, the overwhelming majority simply people whose communication with friends and family had been cut off by the fires.

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"This has happened before but I think it's worse because of the fire, because of all the burnt". The rains caused a monstrous mudslide that swept everything in its path. That's because burned soil can act as a water repellent like pavement, so rainfall that would normally be absorbed in the ground runs off rapidly after a wildfire.

The flooding comes just weeks after the Thomas fire burned almost 282,000 acres in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, stripping hillsides of vegetation needed to stem water runoff during rainstorms. Ventura County received the largest amount of rain, 130 millimeters, according to the Los Angeles Weather Services.

Search efforts are being hampered by a treacherous landscape strewn with boulders and rescuers having to tackle a cement-like mud which reaches shoulder-high in some places.

In Santa Barbara County, a total of 100 homes were destroyed and 300 homes damaged by the mudslides, Eliason said, adding that eight commercial properties were also destroyed and 20 damaged. The area, northwest of Los Angeles, is home to many celebrities and wealthy Californians, who relish its sense of seclusion and relative proximity to the city.

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Those who have stayed in the area have been warned to boil their tap water before drinking it. The fire started more than a month ago.

Emergency helicopters airlifted about 50 people to safety on Tuesday, according to Kevin Taylor of the Montecito Fire Department.

The US Coast Guard released footage of a couple, their two young children and two dogs being plucked from their roof and hoisted up to a helicopter in baskets.

Brown also said responders' efforts are focused on actively rescuing as many as they can and determining whether anyone is still alive in structures that have been damaged.

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