Death toll 25 and may go higher in California
DNA testing only way to ID some of the dead; wildfires in north and south continue
PARADISE, CALIF. — Authorities called in a mobile DNA lab and anthropologists to help identify the dead as the search goes 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 Sunday and appeared likely to rise.
All told, more than 8,000 firefighters battled three large wildfires burning across nearly 1,000 square kilometres in northern and southern California, with out-of-state crews continuing to arrive and gusty, blowtorch winds making their return.
The worst of the blazes was 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 after the blaze destroyed more than 6,700 buildings, nearly all of them homes.
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 but was 25 per cent contained, up from 20 per cent, according to state fire agency, Cal Fire.
But Cal Fire spokesperson Bill Murphy warned that gusty winds predicted into Monday morning could spark “explosive fire behaviour.”
Two people were also found dead in a wildfire in southern California , where flames tore through Malibu mansions and working-class Los Angeles suburbs alike. The severely burned bodies were discovered in a long residential driveway in celebritystudded Malibu, where those forced out of homes included Lady Gaga, Kim Kardashian West, Guillermo del Toro and Martin Sheen.
Flames also besieged Thousand Oaks, the southern California city in mourning over the massacre of 12 people in a shooting rampage at a country music bar Wednesday night.
Fire officials said Sunday morning that the larger of the region’s two fires, the one burning in and around Malibu, grew to 340 square kilometres and was 10 per cent contained. But the strong, dry Santa Ana winds that blow from the interior toward the coast returned after a one-day lull, fanning the flames.
The count of lost structures in both southern California fires climbed to nearly 180, authorities said.
All told, an estimated 300,000 people statewide were under evacuation orders, most of them in southern California.
Gov. Jerry Brown said he is requesting a major-disaster declaration from President Donald Trump that would make victims eligible for crisis counselling, housing and unemployment help, and legal aid.
Drought and warmer weather attributed to climate change, and the building of homes deeper into forests have led to longer and more destructive wildfire seasons in California. While California officially emerged from a five-year drought last year, much of the northern two-thirds of the state is abnormally dry.
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.
People sidestepped burned cars or Jet-Skis as they surveyed neighbourhoods. Some cried when they saw nothing was left.
A flag flies over a burned home Sunday in Paradise, Calif. Fires continue to burn across the state but some progress was made in containing them.