In one of the worst-hit areas of Montecito, mud blew through doors and windows, filling the interiors of houses with muck and debris.
At a news conference Thursday where he said 43 were missing, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said the updated figure was an "inclusive" number that encompassed several definitions of "missing".
The torrential rainstorm that set off the disaster cleared out and was no longer a hindrance as searchers made their way across a landscape strewn with boulders and covered in cement-like mud shoulder-high in some places.
"Recent burn areas will be especially vulnerable where unsafe mud and debris flows are possible", said the National Weather Service in a statement. 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.
As the floodwater gushes downhill through burned areas, it can create major erosion and pick up vast amounts of ash, mud, rocks, sand, silt and scorched vegetation like trees and shrubs.
Shocked by the damage, they took photos of their now-destroyed houses, with many describing the storm as similar to a stampede or an out-of-control train.
Nearly 700 rescuers using search dogs, military helicopters, and thermal imaging equipment were on the scene.
Just last week, Oprah had returned to the Montecito mansion to survey the damage that the Thomas fire had done to the surrounding area.
Most deaths were believed to have occurred in Montecito, Santa Barbara County spokesman David Villalobos said. Santa Barbara County spokeswoman Amber Anderson told reporters some 1,250 emergency workers were at work Friday, slogging through soupy mud and uncertain footing to search for anyone who is trapped. The Carpinteria Fire Department recorded a half-inch of rain in just 5 minutes Tuesday morning, officials said. There's more debris than normal.
About 100 homes have been destroyed and 300 others damaged in Montecito, a community known for its multimillion-dollar properties.