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Natural disasters

Fears for 228 missing as merciless wildfires scorch California

  • The Camp Fire – in the northern foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains – is the largest and most destructive of several infernos
  • That fire has the grisly distinction of matching the 1933 Griffith Park disaster in Los Angeles – until now the single deadliest wildfire on record
PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 November, 2018, 1:08pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 November, 2018, 10:38pm

The death toll from wildfires raging in California rose to 31 after six more people were found killed in what was poised to become the deadliest wildfire in state history.

Officials said the bodies of five people were found in burned-out homes and the sixth was found in a vehicle in northern California’s Camp Fire, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said.

Some 228 people are still unaccounted for, Honea said, while another 137 people have been located after friends or relatives reported being unable to contact them.

The so-called Camp Fire in the northern part of the state has claimed at least 29 lives since it broke out on Thursday.

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Hundreds of kilometres to the south, at least two people have died in the Woolsey Fire threatening the wealthy beach community of Malibu, near Los Angeles.

Looting was reported in the southern fire area and arrests were made, police reported.

Hot dry winds expected to blow until Tuesday whipped up the flames and heightened the urgency of evacuation orders, officials said.

It has been more than 210 days since the area received half an inch or more of rain, making it easy for spot fires to spread to fresh patches of tinder-dry vegetation, fire officials said.

“We are entering a new normal,” said Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen, noting at a news conference that California’s fires in 2018 grow far more quickly than they did even 10 years ago.

“The rate of spread is exponentially more than it used to be.”

Fire crews pushed forward to achieve 25 per cent containment of the Camp Fire in northern California, which had burned 111,000 acres at the edge of the Plumas National Forest, according to Cal Fire’s website.

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In Southern California, where the Woolsey Fire scorched at least 83,275 acres, the blaze was only 10 per cent contained.

The Camp Fire burned down more than 6,700 homes and businesses in Paradise, more structures than any other California wildfire on record.

Its death toll now equals that of the Griffith Park Fire in 1933, the deadliest wildfire on record in California.

Rescuers also spent hours on Saturday collecting bodies around Paradise and placing them in a black hearse.

Body parts were transported by bucket, while intact remains were carried in body bags.

At the Holly Hills Mobile Estate the mobile homes had been reduced to smouldering piles of debris. Yellow police tape delineated spots that were tagged “Doe C” and “Doe D”, a grim marker of the bodies that had recently been removed.

The Woolsey Fire doubled in size from Friday night into Sunday, threatening thousands of homes after triggering mandatory evacuation orders for a quarter million people in the upscale Malibu beach colony as well as other communities in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

Many celebrities live in the area. Despite earlier news reports, that the fire had destroyed the home of Caitlyn Jenner, the transgender advocate and former athlete, her publicist said on Sunday that it had survived.

The entire nearby city of Calabasas, home to more than 20,000 people, was placed under a mandatory evacuation order by city officials on Sunday evening.

Governor Jerry Brown asked US President Donald Trump to declare a major disaster to bolster the emergency response and help residents recover.

Trump, on a trip to France, said in a Twitter post early Sunday: “With proper Forest Management, we can stop the devastation constantly going on in California. Get Smart!”

The Republican president has previously blamed California officials for fires and threatened to withhold funding, saying the state should do more to remove rotten trees and other debris that fuel blazes.

State officials have blamed climate change and said many of the burn areas have been in federally managed lands.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse