Friday 14 December 2018

600 missing after US wildfire

Tally soars as devastating Californian blaze still not under control

Grim task: Members of the California National Guard take a break as they search for human remains in Paradise, California. Photo: AP
Grim task: Members of the California National Guard take a break as they search for human remains in Paradise, California. Photo: AP

Rachael Alexander

A search for victims of a catastrophic blaze that reduced a northern California town to ashes intensified as authorities expanded to 630 the number of those reported missing in the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history.

At least 63 people have been confirmed dead in the Camp Fire, which erupted a week ago in the drought-parched Sierra foothills 280km north of San Francisco and now ranks as one of the most lethal single US wildfires since the turn of the last century.

Authorities attributed the high death toll in part to the staggering speed with which the wind-driven flames, fuelled by desiccated scrub and trees, raced with little warning through Paradise, a town of 27,000 people.

Nearly 12,000 homes and buildings, including most of the town, were incinerated on Thursday night of last week, hours after the blaze erupted, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) has said.

What was left was a ghostly, smoky expanse of empty lots covered in ash and strewn with twisted wreckage and debris.

Thousands of additional structures were still threatened by the blaze, and as many as 50,000 people were under evacuation orders at the height of the blaze. An army of firefighters, many from distant states, laboured to contain and suppress the flames.

The revised official roster of 630 individuals whose whereabouts and fate remained unknown is more than double the 297 listed earlier in the day by the Butte County Sheriff's Office.

Sheriff Kory Honea said nearly 300 people initially reported as unaccounted for had been found alive. He said the list of missing would keep fluctuating with names being added and others removed, either because they turn up safe or are identified among the dead.

The higher confirmed death toll, and rising number of those unaccounted for, were revealed at an evening news briefing by Honea, who said the remains of seven more Camp Fire victims had been located since Wednesday's tally of 56.

The sheriff has asked relatives of the missing to submit DNA samples to hasten identification of the dead. But he acknowledged some of those unaccounted for may never be conclusively found.

The Butte County disaster coincided with a flurry of smaller blazes in Southern California, including the Woolsey Fire, which has been linked with three fatalities and destroyed at least 500 structures in the mountains and foothills near the Malibu coast west of Los Angeles.

The latest blazes have capped a pair of calamitous wildfire seasons in California that scientists largely attribute to prolonged drought they say is symptomatic of climate change.

The causes of the fires are under investigation. But two electric utilities have said they sustained equipment problems close to the origins of the blazes around the time they were reported.

The White House said on Thursday that President Donald Trump, who has been criticised as having politicised the fires by casting blame on forest mismanagement, plans to visit the fire zones today to meet displaced residents.

Cal Fire said that 40pc of the Camp Fire's perimeter had been contained, up from 35pc, even as the blaze footprint grew 2,000 acres to 141,000 acres (57,000 hectares). Containment of the Woolsey fire grew to 57pc.

But smoke and soot spread far and wide. Public schools in Sacramento and districts 145km to the south, and as far away as San Francisco and Oakland, said yesterday's classes were cancelled as the Camp Fire worsened air quality.

Those who survived the flames but lost homes were moving in temporarily with friends or relatives or bunking down in American Red Cross shelters.

Irish Independent

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