THE search for those missing after mudslides in California is becoming increasingly desperate, with growing doubts that anyone else will be found alive.

Seventeen people aged between three and 89 were confirmed dead after the mudslides ravaged the coastal town of Montecito, with more than 40 others unaccounted for. “In disaster circumstances there have been many miraculous stories lasting many days and we certainly are searching for a miracle right now,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said. He noted that some people had been rescued on Thursday.

Santa Barbara fire captain Gary Pitney said most, if not all, rescues on Wednesday and Thursday were of people who were safe but just wanted to get out of the area. Pitney said: “They were OK but they wanted to get out.”

The air smelled of sewage and ash as more than a dozen firefighters climbed through rubble in the backyard of a mansion that had been torn apart.

Some rescuers used poles to probe the muck for bodies, while others waded chest-deep in the mire. Two black Labrador retrievers swam around a debris-filled swimming pool, trying to pick up any scent.

“At this moment, we are still looking for live victims,” Pitney said. But he confessed: “The likelihood is increasing that we’ll be finding bodies, not survivors. You have to start accepting the reality of that.”

He noted that one survivor pulled from the muck earlier in the week was suffering from hypothermia after just an hour.

Crews marked places where bodies were found, often far away from a home, and used that information to guess where other victims might have ended up as the surging mud carried or buried them.

The mudslide, touched off by heavy rain, took many homeowners by surprise early on Tuesday, despite warnings issued days in advance that mudslides were possible because recent wildfires had stripped hillsides of vegetation that normally holds soil in place.

The disaster was already unfolding when Santa Barbara County officials sent out their first mobile phone alert at 3.50am The torrent of mud left homes buried up to their roofs, next to untouched estates, their lawns still green. Officials said 64 homes were destroyed and and 446 damaged.