Saturday 21 September 2019

Grim search for more victims as 31 confirmed dead in California wildfires

More than 8,000 firefighters have been battling blazes that scorched more than 325 square miles of the state.

An American flag is draped over the charred remains of an old pickup (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)
An American flag is draped over the charred remains of an old pickup (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

By Gillian Flaccus and Don Thompson, Associated Press

The death toll from the wildfire that incinerated the Californian town of Paradise and surrounding areas has climbed to 29 as crews continue searching for bodies in the smouldering ruins.

Nearly 230 people are unaccounted for after a wildfire that matched the mark for the deadliest single blaze in the state’s history.

State-wide the number of dead stood at 31, with two victims in southern California, as wildfires raged at both ends of the state.

Ten search teams were working in Paradise — a town of 27,000 that was engulfed by flames on Thursday — and in surrounding communities in northern California’s Sierra Nevada foothills.

Authorities called in a DNA lab and anthropologists to help identify what in some cases were only bones or bone fragments.

More than 8,000 firefighters battled wildfires that scorched more than 325 square miles of the state, with the flames feeding on dry brush and driven by winds that had a blowtorch effect.

“This is truly a tragedy that all Californians can understand and respond to,” governor Jerry Brown said. “It’s a time to pull together and work through these tragedies.”

California is requesting emergency aid from the Trump administration. President Donald Trump has blamed what he called poor forest management for the fires.

The governor said the federal and state governments must do more forest management but climate change is the greater source of the problem.

“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,” he added.

Drought and warmer weather attributed to climate change, and the building of homes deeper into forests, have led to longer and more destructive wildfire seasons in California.

While California officially emerged from a five-year drought last year, much of the northern two-thirds of the state is abnormally dry.

In southern California , firefighters beat back a new round of winds on Sunday and the fire’s spread was believed to have been largely stopped, though extremely low humidity and gusty Santa Ana winds were in the forecast through at least until Tuesday.

Some of the thousands of people forced from their homes were allowed to return, and authorities reopened US 101, a major freeway through the fire zone in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

Malibu celebrities and mobile-home dwellers in nearby mountains were slowly learning whether their homes had been spared or reduced to ash.

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A plane drops fire retardant on a burning hillside in Malibu (Jae C Hong/AP)

Two people were killed in Malibu, and the fire destroyed at least 370 or so structures, authorities said.

The fire grew to more than 143 square miles and was only 20% contained.

Celebrities whose coastal homes were damaged or destroyed or who were forced to flee expressed sympathy for the less famous and offered their gratitude to firefighters.

Actor Gerard Butler said on Instagram that his Malibu home was “half-gone”, adding he was “inspired as ever by the courage, spirit and sacrifice of firefighters”.

In northern California, where more than 6,700 buildings have been destroyed in the blaze that obliterated Paradise, firefighters contended with wind gusts up to 40mph overnight, the fire jumping 300ft across Lake Oroville.

The state fire agency said the fire had grown to 177 square miles and was 25% contained.

The 29 dead in northern California matched the deadliest single fire on record, a 1933 blaze in Griffith Park in Los Angeles.

A series of wildfires in northern California’s wine country last autumn killed 44 people and destroyed more than 5,000 homes.

PA Media

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