Tuesday 17 September 2019

California wildfire death toll reaches record as six more bodies found

A total of 31 people have been killed by fires in the state.

More human remains were found at a burned-out home from the Camp Fire on Sunday (AP/John Locher)
More human remains were found at a burned-out home from the Camp Fire on Sunday (AP/John Locher)

By Gillian Flaccus, Paul Elias and Andrew Selsky, Associated Press

The death toll from a wildfire in Northern California has risen by six to 29, matching the deadliest in state history.

Wildfires continue to rage on both ends of the state, with gusty winds expected overnight which will challenge firefighters.

The statewide death toll stood at 31 and appeared certain to rise.

The so-called Camp fire that ravaged a swath of Northern California was the deadliest.

A total of 29 bodies have been found so far from that fire, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea told a news briefing on Sunday evening.

Nearly 230 people were still unaccounted for, he said.

At least five search teams were working in Paradise — a town of 27,000 that was largely incinerated on Thursday — and in surrounding communities.

Authorities called in a mobile DNA lab and anthropologists to help identify victims of the most destructive wildfire in California history.

By early afternoon, one of the two black hearses stationed in Paradise had picked up another set of remains.

People looking for friends or relatives called evacuation centres, hospitals, police and the coroner’s office.

Officials and relatives held out hope that many of those unaccounted for were safe and simply had no mobile phones or other ways to contact loved ones.

The sheriff’s office in the stricken northern county set up a missing persons call centre to help connect people.

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Santos Alvarado and his son Ricky search for belongings at their destroyed home at Seminole Springs Mobile Home Park (AP/Chris Pizzello)

Governor Jerry Brown said California is requesting aid from Donald Trump’s administration.

The president has blamed “poor” forest management for the fires.

Mr Brown told a press briefing that federal and state governments must do more forest management, but said that was not the source of the problem.

“Managing all the forests in everywhere we can does not stop climate change,” Mr Brown said. “And those who deny that are definitely contributing to the tragedies that we’re now witnessing, and will continue to witness in the coming years.”

Firefighters battling the Camp fire with shovels and bulldozers, flame retardants and hoses expected wind gusts up to 40 mph overnight on Sunday.

Officials said they expect the wind to die down by midday on Monday, but there was still no rain in sight.

More than 8,000 firefighters in all battled three large wildfires burning across nearly 400 square miles in Northern and Southern California, with out-of-state crews arriving.

Two people were found dead in a wildfire in Southern California, where flames tore through Malibu mansions and working-class Los Angeles suburbs alike.

The two severely burned bodies were discovered in a driveway in Malibu, where residents forced from their homes included Lady Gaga, Kim Kardashian West and Martin Sheen.

Actor Gerard Butler said on Instagram that his Malibu home was “half-gone,” and a publicist for Camille Grammer Meyer said the “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star lost her home in the seaside enclave.

Flames also besieged Thousand Oaks, the Southern California city in mourning over the massacre of 12 people in a shooting rampage at a country music bar Wednesday night.

In Northern California, Mr Honea said Butte County consulted anthropologists from California State University at Chico because, in some cases, investigators have been able to recover only bones and bone fragments.

The devastation was so complete in some neighbourhoods that “it’s very difficult to determine whether or not there may be human remains there,” Mr Honea said.

Authorities were also bringing in a DNA lab and encouraged people with missing relatives to submit samples to aid in identifying the dead after the blaze destroyed more than 6,700 buildings, nearly all of them homes.

It's very difficult to determine whether or not there may be human remains there. Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea

Firefighters gained modest ground overnight against the blaze, which grew slightly to 170 square miles from the day before but was 25% contained, up from 20 %, according to the state fire agency, Cal Fire.

But Cal Fire spokesman Bill Murphy warned that gusty winds predicted into Monday morning could spark “explosive fire behaviour”.

A series of wildfires in Northern California wine country last fall killed 44 people and destroyed more than 5,000 homes.

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