Rescuers are racing to find 17 people who are still missing after mudslides slammed into wealthy areas of California, destroying an estimated 100 homes.

More than 500 firefighters are involved in the search – but conditions are perilous, with "multiple reports of rescuers falling through manholes covered with mud".

Video:Mudslides: 100 homes destroyed

Anthony Buzzerio, a Los Angeles County fire chief, said: "The mud is acting like a candy shell on ice cream. It's crusty on top but soft underneath, so we're having to be very careful."

Search dogs, helicopters and thermal imaging equipment are being used to find victims or survivors, with rescuers battling through waist-deep mud in some areas.

Family members inspect the inside of a home covered in mud
Image:Family members inspect the inside of a home covered in mud

Although three people were rescued on Wednesday, two more bodies were also recovered – taking the death toll from the disaster to 17 people.

None of those killed have been publicly identified yet, with Santa Barbara's County Sheriff Bill Brown telling reporters: "We realise this is going to be a long and difficult journey for all of us and our community."

Among those missing are an elderly couple who ignored evacuation warnings to stay in their "forever home" and celebrate an 89th birthday.

The painstaking process of clearing away debris and mud has begun
Image:The painstaking process of clearing away debris and mud has begun

Near their property, a least two homes were carried off their foundations by the force of the mudslides – and as bulldozers began to clear muck and debris from areas already searched by rescue teams, utility crews have started trying to repair downed power lines and snapped telephone poles.

A dozen people are being treated in hospital and four people are in a critical condition.

Video:Oprah walks in deep mud at home

The torrent of mud, trees and boulders flowed down a mountain scarred by extensive wildfires in recent weeks – and the fast-moving debris took many by surprise.

Jennifer Markham, whose home escaped both disasters, said: "We totally thought we were out of the woods.

"I was frozen yesterday morning thinking: 'This is a million times worse than the fire ever was.'"

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An aerial view from a Ventura County Sheriff helicopter shows a site damaged by mudslide in Montecito, California
Video:California 'like WWI battlefield'

Although mandatory evacuations were put into force in some parts of Santa Barbara, only 10% to 15% of residents actually heeded the warnings to flee their homes.

The wealthy enclave of Montecito was one of the hardest-hit areas, with celebrities including Oprah Winfrey revealing their homes were among those damaged.

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