Monday 23 September 2019

California wildfire victims named as officials bid to ID dozens of bodies

The death toll from the Northern California fire has risen to 48.

A sign stands at a community destroyed by the Camp fire (AP/John Locher)
A sign stands at a community destroyed by the Camp fire (AP/John Locher)

By Martha Mendoza and Gillian Flaccus, Associated Press

Three victims of the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history have been named.

Ernest Foss, a musician who once taught lessons, Carl Wiley, who refurbished tyres for Michelin, and Jesus Fernandez, known as Zeus, who was described as a loving father and loyal friend, were identified as being among 48 people who perished in the blaze.

The flames all but obliterated the Northern California town of Paradise, population 27,000, and ravaged surrounding areas on Thursday.

The exact number of missing was unclear, but many friends and relatives of those living in the fire zone said they had not heard from loved ones.

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(PA Graphics)

Efforts were underway to bring in mobile morgues, body-finding dogs and a rapid DNA analysis system for identifying victims.

There was also an additional 150 search-and-rescue personnel on top of 13 teams already looking for remains — a grim indication that the death toll is likely to rise.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea’s office has identified four of the victims and publicly named three.

James Wiley said sheriff’s deputies informed him that his father, Carl, was among the dead, but he had not been able to leave his property in the fire area to see for himself.

Mr Wiley, 77, was a tyre refurbisher, and the family lived in Alaska for many years before moving to Butte County decades ago.

James Wiley said his father was a stoic veteran, and the two had not spoken in six years.

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Search and rescue workers search for human remains at a trailer park burned out from the Camp Fire (AP/John Locher)

Mr Foss, 63, moved to Paradise eight years ago because the high cost of living pushed him out of the San Francisco Bay Area, according to his daughter, Angela Loo.

He had swollen limbs, could not walk and had also been on oxygen.

Ms Loo told KTVU-TV in Oakland that her father taught music out of their home in San Francisco and turned the living room into a studio.

“I love that he shared his gift of music with me and so many others during his lifetime,” she said.

Mr Fernandez, a 48-year-old Concow resident, also died.

Myrna Pascua, whose husband was best friends with the man known as “Zeus,” called him a “tireless provider, a dependable and loyal friend, a considerate neighbour, and loving father”.

The search for the dead was drawing on portable devices that can identify someone’s genetic material in a couple of hours, rather than days or weeks.

“In many circumstances, without rapid DNA technology, it’s just such a lengthy process,” says Frank DePaolo, a deputy commissioner of the New York City medical examiners’ office.

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Roger Kelton, 67, wipes his tears while searching through the remains of his mother-in-law’s home burned down by a fire in Woolsey, California (AP/Jae C Hong)

It has been at the forefront of the science of identifying human remains since 9/11 and is exploring how it might use a rapid DNA device.

Still, experts said on Tuesday that authorities may first try more traditional methods of identification such as examining dental records.

That is in part because victims might have undergone dental X-rays but not personal DNA profiles.

Medical records of bone fractures, prosthetics or implants can also be helpful.

Five days after the blaze, over 1,000 people were at more than a half-dozen shelters set up for evacuees.

At the Neighbourhood Church in Chico, counsellors, chaplains and nursing students from nearby California State University were available to help.

Volunteers cooked meals, and there was a large bulletin board with information about missing people.

Before the Paradise tragedy, the deadliest single fire on record in California was a 1933 blaze in Griffith Park in Los Angeles that killed 29.

At the other end of the state, firefighters made progress against a massive blaze that has killed two people in star-studded Malibu and destroyed well over 400 structures in Southern California.

The flames roared to life again in a mountainous wilderness area on Tuesday, sending up a huge plume of smoke near the community of Lake Sherwood.

Still, firefighters made gains. The number of people evacuated was down by about half from the day before, to around 100,000, authorities said, and the fire was partially contained.

“We’re getting the upper hand here. We’re feeling better,” Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said.

The fire in Northern California charred at least 195 square miles, but officials said crews were able to keep it from advancing toward Oroville, a town of about 19,000 people.

The state recently completed a 1.1 billion dollar (£850m) reconstruction project at the Oroville Dam — the nation’s tallest at 770ft — and officials were worried about damage if flames came through.

Spillways at the dam crumbled during heavy rains in 2017, prompting thousands to flee for fear of a catastrophic release of water.

The cause of the fires remained under investigation, but they broke out around the time and place two utilities reported equipment trouble.

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