Sunday 16 December 2018

At least 63 dead as number of people missing in California wildfire rises to more than 600

Travis Lee Hogan, of Paradise, comforts his mother, Bridgett Hogan, while they stay at a makeshift evacuation center for people displaced by the Camp Fire in Chico, California, U.S., November 15, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester
Travis Lee Hogan, of Paradise, comforts his mother, Bridgett Hogan, while they stay at a makeshift evacuation center for people displaced by the Camp Fire in Chico, California, U.S., November 15, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester
Smoke hangs over the scorched remains of Old Town Plaza following the wildfire in Paradise (Noah Berger/AP)
A dog searches for victims of the Camp Fire in Paradise (Noah Berger/AP)
A fence destroyed by the Camp Fire is seen in Paradise, California, U.S., November 14, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester
Trish Moutard (C), of Sacramento, and other volunteers search for human remains with Moutard's cadaver dog, I.C., in a neighborhood destroyed by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S., November 14, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester
An electricity pole damaged by the Camp Fire lies near a Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) truck in Paradise, California, U.S., November 14, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

Paul Elisa and Kathleen Ronayne

At least 63 people have died in a Northern California wildfire while 631 people are sill unaccounted for, authorities have said.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea revealed the increased missing persons total at a news conference on Thursday, having put the figure at 130 just a day earlier.

Mr Honea said the original total was a partial count, and that after authorities went back through all emergency calls and other reports of missing people from the past week, they came up with the new number.

The list probably included some who had fled the blaze and did not realise they had been reported missing, he added.

Travis Lee Hogan, of Paradise, comforts his mother, Bridgett Hogan, while they stay at a makeshift evacuation center for people displaced by the Camp Fire in Chico, California, U.S., November 15, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester
Travis Lee Hogan, of Paradise, comforts his mother, Bridgett Hogan, while they stay at a makeshift evacuation center for people displaced by the Camp Fire in Chico, California, U.S., November 15, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

"The chaos that we were dealing with was extraordinary," he said of the early crisis hours last week. "Now we're trying to go back out and make sure that we're accounting for everyone."

Authorities also reported seven more fatalities, bringing the total to 63, in the deadliest wildfire in state history.

Ten years ago, as two wildfires advanced on the town of Paradise, residents jumped into their vehicles to flee and got stuck in gridlock. That led authorities to devise a staggered evacuation plan - one that they used when fire came again last week.

But Paradise's carefully laid plans quickly devolved into a panicked exodus.

Some survivors said that by the time they got warnings, the flames were already extremely close, and they barely escaped with their lives. Others said they received no warnings at all.

Now authorities are facing questions over whether they took the right approach.

Reeny Victoria Breevaart, who lives in Magalia, a forested community of 11,000 people north of Paradise, said she could not receive warnings because mobile phones were not working. She also lost electrical power.

Mr Honea said evacuation orders were issued through 5,227 emails, 25,643 phone calls and 5,445 texts, in addition to social media and the use of loudspeakers. As mobile phone service went down, authorities went into neighbourhoods with bullhorns to tell people to leave.

"The fact that we have thousands and thousands of people in shelters would clearly indicate that we were able to notify a significant number of people," the sheriff said.

Firefighters continued gaining ground against the 222-square mile blaze, which was reported to be 45% contained on Friday. It destroyed 9,700 houses and 144 apartment buildings, the state fire agency said.

Rain in the forecast for Tuesday night could help knock down the flames but might also complicate efforts by more 450 searchers to find human remains in the ashes. In some cases, search crews are finding little more than bones and bone fragments.

President Donald Trump plans to travel to California on Saturday to visit victims of the wildfires burning at both ends of the state.

In Southern California, crews continued to gain ground against a blaze of more than 153 square miles that destroyed more than 500 structures in Malibu and communities. At least three deaths were reported.

Press Association

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