More than two full days after mudslides ravaged the coastal town of Montecito, doubts are growing about whether anyone would be found alive. Seventeen people are confirmed dead, and more than 40 others are unaccounted for.

With clean-up operations underway, workers were battling the viscous mud on the streets of Montecito – while in other areas efforts continued to restore power. January 11, 2018
With clean-up operations underway, workers were battling the viscous mud on the streets of Montecito – while in other areas efforts continued to restore power. January 11, 2018 (AFP)

Authorities in southern California said on Thursday that dozens of residents were still unaccounted for after powerful mudslides that have killed 17 people, including four children, and destroyed homes in a region already pummeled by massive wildfires.

Heavy rain on Tuesday, which followed 10 months of drought, sent sticky mud and debris flowing from the hills into Montecito and other towns in Santa Barbara County, northwest of Los Angeles.

"There are 43 people we're now looking into and investigating to see if they actually are missing," Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said, while adding: "It's a constantly moving number."

Brown explained that those unaccounted for could yet be located, but warned that the death toll could rise.

The devastating mudslides, which were triggered by heavy rains early on Tuesday, roared into valleys denuded by historic wildfires that struck the area last month. January 11, 2018
The devastating mudslides, which were triggered by heavy rains early on Tuesday, roared into valleys denuded by historic wildfires that struck the area last month. January 11, 2018 (Reuters)

Authorities emphasized that the situation was still fluid. Earlier in the day, officials put the number of missing at just eight.

"There are mothers, fathers, grandfathers, siblings, and the list goes on and on," Brown said.

Terrifying wildfires forced people to evacuate in December – with the mudslides striking just two weeks after they returned.

The fires burned most vegetation, leaving perfect conditions for the latest tragedy to unfold.

With clean-up operations underway, workers were battling the viscous mud on the streets of Montecito Thursday – while in other areas, efforts continued to restore power.

About 700 rescue workers in helicopters and high-wheeled military vehicles, some with search dogs, were deployed in the hunt for the missing. January 11, 2018
About 700 rescue workers in helicopters and high-wheeled military vehicles, some with search dogs, were deployed in the hunt for the missing. January 11, 2018 (Reuters)

Heavy rain, destroyed homes

The highest rainfall was recorded at 13 centimetres (five inches)in Ventura County, according to the National Weather Service – but forecasts for the next week do not predict rain.

Residents were rescued by helicopter from the roofs of their homes – with some later returning to recover valuable belongings and pets.

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.

More than 35 miles (50 kilometres) of the 101 Freeway, which connects northern California to the south, remained blocked by mud.

Source: AFP