California Mudslides Force Evacuations of Luxury Hotels

According to public information officer Amber Anderson, the official death toll has hit 15, with at least 28 reported injuries and 24 people missing.

Flooding and debris flows closed United States 101 in the Thomas Fire burn area, located north of Ventura and south of Santa Barbara, according to California Department of Transportation.

More than 50 people have been rescued already but many places were still inaccessible.

U.S. media mogul Oprah Winfrey has returned to scenes of devastation in her home of Montecito after deadly mudslides killed 15 people.

Rescue crews searched for anyone trapped, injured or dead in the onslaught that smashed homes and swept away cars. The fire destroyed 1,063 structures and damaged another 280 in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, particularly affecting the cities of Montecito and Carpinteria.

The area is home to a number of celebrities, including actor Rob Lowe, chat show host Ellen DeGeneres and TV personality and actor Oprah Winfrey.

Several major roads were buried beneath tons of mud, including the 101 Freeway.

California Mudslides Force Evacuations of Luxury Hotels

With roads blocked, rescue crews used helicopters to pluck people from their rooftops.

A storm in southern California unleashed heavy mudslides and flash floods in the area due to recent wildfires that burned down vegetation.

Emergency personnel search through debris and damaged homes after a mudslide in Montecito, California on January 9.

"We've got multiple reports of rescuers falling through manholes that were covered with mud, swimming pools that were covered up with mud", said Anthony Buzzerio, a Los Angeles County fire battalion chief. The rain fell hard, officials say two to four inches fell in less than 30 minutes in some areas.

The rainstorm deteriorated south-facing slopes and flooded a creek leading to the ocean sending mud and massive boulders coursing through Montecito neighborhoods recently ravaged by the Thomas fire, Santa Barbara County Fire Department spokesman Mike Eliason said.

At least 300 houses were damaged in the Montecito area and many more were listed as "threatened". The torrent arrived suddenly and with a sound some likened to a freight train as water carrying rocks and trees washed away homes.

Vanessa Coleman