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Natural disasters

California fires: in the ashes of Paradise, they sift for the victims with sieves

  • Tales of survival and loss are emerging from the aftermath of the devastating blaze that levelled the town on Paradise
  • The death toll from the northern California fire hit 42, making it the deadliest wildfire in state history
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 November, 2018, 5:09am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 November, 2018, 3:18pm

When the Camp Fire swept into the community of Paradise on Thursday, Shane Bender watched as the air filled with acrid smoke and glowing embers rained down on the rooftops of nearby houses.

Within minutes, dozens of men, women and children – some of them screaming and crying – were streaming down a two-lane street toward the safety of a hardware store car park.

Bender, a retired firefighter, helped guide them out, assuring them there was safety beyond the smoke.

Three days later, he is still trying to find out what happened to some of his neighbours.

He’s not sure how many are among the more than 200 missing in a fire that has already killed at least 42 people, the highest death toll in history from a single California wildfire.

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The dead were found in burned-out cars, in the smouldering ruins of their homes, or next to their vehicles, apparently overcome by smoke and flames before they could jump in behind the wheel and escape.

In some cases, there were only charred fragments of bone, so small that coroner’s investigators used a wire basket to sift and sort them.

Bender stood outside his single-storey, wood-sided home in Paradise on Sunday.

Splotches of charred pine needles covered his yard like leopard spots, but his property was otherwise unscathed.

His was one of the few miracles in a blaze that authorities say has claimed 7,100 homes and 260 commercial structures.

“I’m having a hard time grasping what happened here,” said Bender, 31.

“I moved a year ago. I was just getting to know my neighbours. All good people.”

Bender said deputies had made visits to the residences of several neighbours listed as missing.

“They park, check the address and then start walking slowly, eyeballing the broken glass and Sheetrock for telltale signs,” he said.

The death toll from the devastating blaze, which has been dubbed the Camp Fire, surpassed the previous record of 29 lives lost in 1933 from the Griffith Park blaze in Los Angeles.

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Authorities reported two more people perished over the weekend in a separate blaze, called the Woolsey Fire, that has destroyed 435 structures and displaced some 200,000 people in the mountains and foothills near Southern California’s Malibu coast, west of Los Angeles.

US President Donald Trump, who drew criticism over the weekend for erroneously blaming the fires on “gross mismanagement” of forests, approved California Governor Jerry Brown’s request for a major disaster declaration on Monday.

The measure hastens availability of federal emergency aid to fire-stricken regions of the state.

The search for victims in northern California has been hampered by the fire, which is still burning in the area.

Through much of the weekend, the ground remained too hot for cadaver dogs to tread.

University anthropologists, trained in spotting bone fragments and other blackened body parts, systematically mined the ash and detritus of buildings wiped out in Paradise.

“In some cases, the fire burned so intensely that it burned everything to the ground, and in some cases it melted the metal,” Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said.

“In those cases it is possible the temperatures were high enough to completely consume the body.”

Markham Odell, 61, recalled the sky turned black as thick smoke blocked the early-morning sun that grim Thursday morning.

Out of nowhere, a dead bird fell, hitting him on the shoulder.

“I’ve never panicked at any time in my life,” Odell said.

“But I felt it start to come.”

One of the last things Odell grabbed was a copy of his home insurance policy.

Jane Palmer, 77, said she received four automated calls the night before the fire from Pacific Gas & Electric, telling her the utility was about to cut off her power, which it did about 9.30pm.

She said she realised Paradise was on fire and her mobile home park was threatened when she saw the smoke and flames.

As Palmer drove out, she encountered a neighbour, Patsy Jacobs, 62, trying to walk out, and she picked her up. Because Palmer cannot see well, Jacobs helped navigate her rescuer through the thick smoke.

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“What pisses me off is I don’t think they told everybody soon enough,” said Kim Benn, 49, a neighbour who realised she needed to flee the fire when another resident pounded on her door.

Additional reporting by Associated Press and Reuters