THE number of people missing since mudslides engulfed a Californian town surged to 48 today as hundreds of rescue workers slogged through knee-deep ooze and used long poles to probe for bodies.

The number of confirmed dead in Montecito stood at 17.

The huge increase in those unaccounted for came as authorities investigated missing-persons reports, said Santa Barbara County spokeswoman Amber Anderson.

The number has fluctuated since the disaster struck in early-morning darkness on Tuesday and was as low as 16 last night. The new count raised fears the disaster was far worse than authorities imagined.

As search dogs clambered on heaps of wood that used to be homes, mud-spattered rescue teams from all over California worked their way through the ruins of Montecito, an enclave of 9000 people north-west of Los Angeles that is home to celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey.

It was left covered with thick muck, boulders, wrecked cars, splintered lumber and tree limbs in a scene Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown likened to a First World War battlefield.

After a better look at the damage, officials lowered the number of destroyed homes from 100 to 59 and raised the number of damaged ones from 300 to 446.

Overall, 28 people were injured.