California wildfire becomes deadliest in state’s history as toll hits 42
Survivors told how they fled California’s apocalyptic wildfires as the soles of their shoes melted, celebrities returned to find their multi-million dollars homes in ashes, and the state’s governor warned "our whole way of life" was under threat.
As the fires continued to rage at both ends of the Golden State the death toll around the incinerated northern town of Paradise rose to 42 on Monday night, making it the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history. Two more dead have perished near Malibu in the south of the state.
The latest death toll was announced by the Butte County sheriff after authorities located the remains of 13 additional victims.
Thousands of firefighters were still searching for bodies among the smouldering ruins, and more than 200 people remained unaccounted for.
The dead have been found in burned-out cars, in the smoldering 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.
How the wildfire in Paradise developed
The home of Gerard Butler, the British actor, was among hundreds obliterated in Malibu.
He posted a photograph of the remains on the internet, writing: "Returned to my house in Malibu after evacuating. Heartbreaking time across California. Inspired as ever by the courage, spirit and sacrifice of firefighters."
Miley Cyrus, the singer, also lost her mansion. She said: "My house no longer stands but the memories shared with family and friends stand strong. I am grateful for all I have left."
Returned to my house in Malibu after evacuating. Heartbreaking time across California. Inspired as ever by the courage, spirit and sacrifice of firefighters. Thank you @LAFD. If you can, support these brave men and women at https://t.co/ei7c7F7cZx. pic.twitter.com/AcBcLtKmDU
— Gerard Butler (@GerardButler) November 11, 2018
Other celebrities known to have lost their homes in Malibu, just outside Los Angeles, included the musicians Neil Young and Robin Thicke.
"I put my hand out in front of me and prayed to God, ‘Please, don’t let me die like this’."
The nurse was rescued by firefighters heading towards the blaze.
Paradise was a popular retirement area and the large number of elderly residents made the evacuation more difficult, as did gridlock on the main road out of the isolated town.
How the fire spread
Around 8,000 firefighters are battling the wildfires that have burned more than 400 square miles around the state, feeding on dry brush and driven by winds that have had a blowtorch effect.
They first ignited on Thursday in Butte County’s Sierra foothills, about 175 miles (280 km) north of San Francisco. The fires then spread with an erratic intensity that has strained firefighting resources while catching many residents by surprise.
Winds abated on Saturday, giving firefighters a chance to gain some ground against the flames. High winds returned on Sunday but fell again Monday morning, with crews managing to carve containment lines around 30 per cent of the Camp Fire perimeter, an area encompassing 117,000 acres of scorched, smoldering terrain.
Winds of up to 40 miles per hour (64 km per hour) were expected to continue in Southern California throughout Tuesday, heightening the risk of fresh blazes ignited by scattered embers. CalFire said 57,000 structures were still in harm’s way from the Woolsey Fire.
By the weekend the fire ranked as the most destructive on record in California in terms of property losses, having consumed more than 7,100 homes and other structures.
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said on Monday that 228 people were officially listed as missing in the disaster, but added that his office had received requests to check on the wellbeing of more than 1,500 people who had not been heard from by loved ones. Of those cases, 231 individuals had turned up safe, he said.
Authorities made clear, however, that they are bracing for the number of fatalities to climb.
In addition to 13 coroner-led recovery teams working in the fire zone, 150 search-and-recovery personnel were due to arrive on Tuesday, Mr Honea said.
The sheriff said he also has requested three portable morgue teams from the US military, a "disaster mortuary" crew and an unspecified number of cadaver dog units to assist in the search for human remains. Three groups of forensic anthropologists were also called in to help, he said.
The political divide
Donald Trump urged those in the path of fires to evacuate, and praised firefighters as "amazing and very brave".
The president blamed poor forestry management in California for the blazes.
Celebrities who lost their homes in Malibu are among many to criticise the president for trying to politicise the disaster. My Trump has been at loggerheads with Californian lawmakers on a number of issues since entering the White House.
Jerry Brown, the California governor, said climate change and a five-year drought, were partly responsible.
He said: "Unfortunately, the best science is telling us that dryness, warmth, drought, all those things, they’re going to intensify. We have a real challenge here threatening our whole way of life."
Mr Trump on Monday approved a major disaster declaration at the request of Mr Brown, hastening the availability of federal emergency assistance to fire-stricken regions of the state.