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Grim search for 1,276 missing after deadliest California wildfire

A home burns as the Camp Fire moves through the area on November 8, 2018 in Paradise, California.

[PARADISE, California] Authorities sifted through the charred wreckage of California's deadliest ever wildfire on Sunday, searching for any signs of the 1,276 people now listed as missing after the Camp Fire tore through the mountain town of Paradise.

The remains of 76 people have been recovered so far, 63 of whom have been tentatively identified pending DNA confirmation. Early on Sunday the blaze, which ignited on Nov 8, was 60 per cent contained, officials said, up from 55 per cent Saturday.

Rain is forecast for the area this week, potentially helping douse the flames but raising the risk of floods and mudslides, adding to the misery of 46,000 people under evacuation orders.

Many refugees from the fire have taken up temporary residence with friends and relatives, while others have pitched tents or were camping out of their vehicles.

The death toll far surpasses the previous fatality record from a single California wildfire - 29 in the Griffith Park fire of 1933 in Los Angeles - and already ranks among the deadliest US wildfires since the turn of the last century.

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Eighty-seven people perished in the Big Burn firestorm that swept the Northern Rockies in August 1910. Minnesota's Cloquet Fire in October 1918 killed 450 people.

In Paradise, the flames moved so fast that some victims died in their cars in a chaotic evacuation as gridlock formed on the two exit routes out of town.

The Butte County Sheriff's Office said the list of the missing is compiled using information received from a special hotline, as well as emails and emergency-911 calls that came in during the first chaotic hours of the blaze.

Authorities said some of those listed likely survived but have not yet notified family or officials, either because they lack phone service or were unaware anyone was looking for them.

In Paradise, home to nearly 27,000 people before the Camp Fire struck, two forensic anthropologists for the University of Nevada, Reno, were helping firefighters on Saturday sort through the wreckage at a mobile home park for senior citizens.

Firefighters peeled back the metal sheet of a collapsed roof as the anthropologists picked up charred bone fragments, sorting them into paper bags.

Roger Fielding, chief deputy coroner with the Martin County Sheriff's Office, said each site was treated as a crime scene, with every step of recovery documented with photographs.

"Our job is to pick up any items that might reflect who this person might be," he said.


Besides the toll on human life, property losses from the blaze make it the most destructive in California history, posing the additional challenge of providing long-term shelter for many thousands of displaced residents.

At the latest count, the Camp Fire had destroyed more than 12,700 homes and other structures, authorities said on Sunday.

Up to 10cm of rain is expected to fall from late Tuesday through Friday in the Sierra foothills, the National Weather Service's Weather Prediction Center said.

Rain will also drop on San Francisco, helping to clear the air filled with unhealthy levels of smoke.

Patrick Burke, a lead forecaster with the National Weather Service's Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland, said the rain will be a "one-two-punch."

"It'll bring much needed relief to the firefighters and to the air quality, but there's a potential for dangerous mudslides wherever vegetation is burned away on slopes and hills," he said.

Up to 5cm of rain is also expected to fall on southern California this week, where the Woolsey Fire claimed at least three lives, Mr Burke said.

The Woolsey Fire was 88 per cent contained on Sunday, authorities said. Full containment is expected on Thanksgiving Thursday.

On Saturday, US President Donald Trump visited Paradise and the scene of the Woolsey Fire.

Mr Trump has blamed the recent spate of fires on forest mismanagement, and he said he discussed the issue with California Governor Jerry Brown and Governor-elect Gavin Newsom.

Scientists have said the growing frequency and intensity of wildfires in California and elsewhere across the US West are largely attributable to prolonged drought that is symptomatic of climate change.

The precise causes of the Camp and Woolsey Fires were under investigation, but electric utilities have reported equipment problems in the vicinity of both blazes around the time they erupted.

PG&E Corp has said it could face liability that exceeds its insurance coverage if its equipment were found to have caused the Camp Fire.


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