By Noel Randewich and Sharon Bernstein
PARADISE, Calif. (Reuters) – The remains of six more fire victims were found on Tuesday in a northern California town overrun by flames last week, raising the death toll to 48 in the most lethal and destructive wildfire in California’s history.
The latest fatality count was announced by Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea after forensic teams with cadaver dogs spent the day combing through a ghostly landscape strewn with ash and charred debris in what was left of the Sierra foothills hamlet of Paradise, about 175 miles (280 km) north of San Francisco.
Honea said 100 National Guard troops were being sent in at his request to assist the search for additional human remains left by the so-called Camp Fire.
The intensified effort to locate victims came on the sixth day of a blaze that has incinerated more than 8,800 homes and other buildings, including most of Paradise, a town once home to 27,000 people that was largely erased hours after the fire began on Thursday.
More than 50,000 area residents remained under evacuation orders.
The killer blaze had blackened 130,000 acres (52,600 hectares) of drought-parched scrub by Tuesday but crews had carved containment lines around a third of the fire’s expanding perimeter, helped by diminished winds and high humidity.
The news was likewise more upbeat on the southern end of California’s wildfire front, where a blaze called the Woolsey Fire has killed two people, destroyed more than 400 structures and displaced some 200,000 people in the mountains and foothills near the Malibu coast west of Los Angeles.
‘DEEP INFRASTRUCTURE’ LOSSES
That blaze has scorched 96,000 acres (39,000 hectares) of chaparral-covered rolling hills and canyons spanning Ventura and Los Angeles counties, an area roughly the size of Denver.
Beyond the loss of homes, Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell said the fire had destroyed “deep infrastructure” – power lines, water lines, sewers, roads, and lights – “and other things that make a city a city.”
However, containment of the fire grew to 35 percent on Tuesday as several communities previously under evacuation orders were reopened to residents, a sign firefighters were gaining the upper hand, Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said.
The causes of the Camp and Woolsey fires were under investigation. Two utility companies, Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric, reported to regulators they experienced problems with transmission lines or substations in areas around the time the blazes were reported to have started.
The battle against the Camp Fire on Tuesday was waged most intensely in steep, thickly wooded canyons filled with desiccated brush along the southern flank of the blaze.
“The fuel is so dry that if we get any wind, the fire is going to move,” fire Captain Bill Murphy, a spokesman for the incident command, told Reuters.
While prospects for suppressing the fire grew more hopeful, authorities stepped up the grim task of sifting through rubble of homes obliterated in wind-driven flames that roared through Paradise, sending residents fleeing for their lives.
The bodies of some victims were found in and around the burned-out wreckage of vehicles engulfed in the firestorm as evacuation traffic halted in deadly knots of gridlock hours after the fire erupted.
“The fire was so rapid, we couldn’t keep ahead of it,” Honea said.
‘LOOK FOR SKULLS’
The latest tally of 48 dead far surpasses the previous record for the greatest loss of life from a single wildfire in California history when 29 people killed by the Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles in 1933.
Honea said, in some cases, victims were burned beyond recognition, or even beyond the use of fingerprint identification.
“We’re finding remains in various states,” he told reporters. “People have been badly burned. Some of them, I assume, have been consumed.”
Honea had previously said 228 people were listed as missing. However, he said on Tuesday night those numbers were highly fluid and that his office planned to publish a new list of missing persons soon and would ask the public to help account for them.
He said it remained unclear how many individuals whose whereabouts were unknown had perished or fallen out of touch in chaotic evacuations.
Teams of workers wielding chainsaws cleared downed power lines and other obstacles from Paradise streets while forensics investigators picked through barren, fire-scorched lots.
A 10-member forensics search team wearing white protective suits and red helmets used a dog to scour the debris on one residential street in Paradise lined with razed houses.
“Look for skulls, the big bones,” one forensics worker said to others as they used metal poles and their hands to sift through ruins.
Recovery workers stirred green, darkened waters with long poles to probe for bodies at a nearby community swimming pool.
Honea said 150 additional search personnel were due to arrive in the area, reinforcing 13 coroner-led recovery teams.
He has requested portable morgue teams from the U.S. military, as well as a disaster mortuary crew, additional cadaver dogs and forensic anthropology units.
President Donald Trump declared a major disaster from the California wildfires on Monday night, making federal emergency funds more readily available in the stricken counties.
California has endured two of its worst wildfire seasons in recorded history in the past two years, which experts attribute in large part to prolonged drought across the western United States.
(Reported by Noel Randewich and Sharon Bernstein; Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Writing by Daniel Trotta and Steve Gorman; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Lisa Shumaker and Paul Tait)