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Natural disasters

Death toll hits 25 from wildfires at both ends of California

  • Mobile DNA lab and anthropologists have been called in by local authorities to help identify victims’ remains
PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 November, 2018, 1:26am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 November, 2018, 1:26am

Authorities called in a mobile DNA lab and anthropologists to help identify the dead as the search went on for victims of the most destructive wildfire in California history. The overall death toll from the outbreak of fires at both ends of the state stood at 25 on Sunday and appeared likely to rise.

The worst of the blazes were in Northern California, where flames reduced the town of Paradise, population 27,000, to a smoking ruin days ago and continued to rage in surrounding communities. The number of people killed in that fire alone, at least 23, made it the third-deadliest on record in the state.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said the county was bringing in more rescue workers and consulted anthropologists from California State University at Chico because in some cases “the only remains we are able to find are bones or bone fragments”.

“This weighs heavy on all of us,” 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.

The sheriff’s department compiled a list of 110 people unaccounted for, but officials held out hope that many were safe but had no cellphones or some other way to contact loved ones.

Firefighters gained modest ground overnight against the blaze, which grew slightly to 440 square kilometres from the day before and was 25 per cent contained, up from 20 per cent, said David Clark, a spokesman for the state fire agency, Cal Fire.

Clark said Sunday that high winds and dry conditions were expected over the next 24 hours: “We’re at a pivotal point now.”

The blaze destroyed more than 6,700 buildings, nearly all of them homes.

Two people were also found dead in a wildfire in Southern California, where fires tore through Malibu mansions and homes in working-class Los Angeles suburbs. The severely burned bodies were discovered in a long residential driveway in Malibu, home to a multitude of Hollywood celebrities.

Among those forced out of their homes were Lady Gaga, Kim Kardashian West, Guillermo del Toro and Martin Sheen.

Woolsey fire: celebrities await word of fate of homes as Malibu burns

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

Cal Fire Battalion Chief Lucas Spelman said the larger of the two fires in the region was 10 per cent contained, but firefighters braced for another round of Santa Ana winds, the dry gusts that blow out of the interior toward the coast.

The count of lost structures in both Southern California fires climbed to at least 179, authorities said.

All told, a quarter-million people were under evacuation orders across the state, officials said.

Drought, warmer weather attributed to climate change and home construction deeper into forests have led to more destructive wildfire seasons in California that have been starting earlier and lasting longer.

In Paradise, a town founded in the 1800s, residents who stayed behind to try to save their properties or who managed to return despite an evacuation order found incinerated cars and homes.

Wearing masks because the air was still heavy with smoke, people sidestepped metal that had melted off of cars or Jet-Skis as they surveyed their ravaged neighbourhoods. Some cried when they saw nothing was left.

Jan McGregor, 81, got back to his small two-bedroom home in Paradise with the help of his firefighter grandson. He found his home levelled – a large metal safe and pipes from his septic system the only recognisable traces. The safe was punctured with bullet holes from guns inside that went off in the scorching heat.

He lived in Paradise for nearly 80 years, moving there in 1939, when the town had just 3,000 people and was nicknamed Poverty Ridge.

“We knew Paradise was a prime target for forest fire over the years,” he said. “We’ve had ‘em come right up to the city limits – oh, yeah – but nothing like this.”

McGregor said he probably would not rebuild: “I have nothing here to go back to.”