Death toll in 'deadliest' California wildfire jumps to 42

  • 13 Nov 2018

Additional remains of people killed by northern California wildfire, also known as the Camp Fire, recovered, making it the deadliest wildland blaze in state's history, Sheriff Kory Honea says.

Leveled residences line a block following the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif., on Monday, Nov. 12, 2018. ( AP )

A devastating blaze in northern California has become the deadliest wildfire in the history of the state, with 42 people killed, Sheriff Kory Honea said on Monday.

"As of today, an additional 13 human remains have been recovered, which brings the total number to 42," Honea told a news conference, adding it was the "deadliest" wildland blaze ever in California.

Authorities also searched for more than 200 people unaccounted for, voicing concern about a possible rising death toll, as gusty, dry winds spurred the spreading flames.

The raging blaze in northern California known as the Camp Fire, the state's most destructive on record, had left at least 228 people missing as of early Monday, according to Honea.

The blazes left behind scenes of utter ruin, with homes and businesses reduced to charred wreckage and the winds also spreading large amounts of ash.

Both fires have been whipped up by hot dry winds. 

Winds spreading fire

Winds of up to 64 km per hour were expected to continue in southern California through Tuesday, heightening the risk of fresh blazes ignited by scattered embers, while the winds were forecast to begin diminishing later on Monday at the site of the Camp Fire. 

The wildfires flared in two new locations on Monday morning in southern California, officials said.

The fires have displaced more than 224,000 people, officials said. About 8,000 firefighters using fire fighting equipment including helicopters and air tankers were battling the flames, with assistance coming from out of state.

The Camp Fire, 60 km north of Sacramento, burned down more than 6,700 homes and businesses in the town of Paradise, more structures than any other wildfire recorded in California.

The fire had scorched more than 45,729 hectares and was 25 percent contained, officials said on Monday. 

The blaze has probably caused between $2 billion and $4 billion in insured property damage, Morgan Stanley estimated in a report on Monday.

Speaking on CNN, Honea said while he holds out hope that many people listed as missing will turn up safe, "given what we've dealt with so far with casualties as a result of this fire, I have concerns that it (the death toll) will rise."

Thousands evacuated 

In southern California, the Woolsey Fire had burned more than 36,826 hectares and was 20 percent contained, with 370 structures destroyed, officials said. 

The fire had forced authorities to issue evacuation orders for a quarter million people in Ventura and Los Angeles counties and beachside communities including the Malibu beach colony, home to many celebrities.

At least two people have died in the Woolsey Fire, which is 32 km long and 22 km wide, threatening 57,000 structures, officials said.

"These are extreme conditions. If there's a fire in your neighbourhood, don't wait for an evacuation order, leave," Los Angeles County Fire Department Chief Daryl Osby told a news conference.

Many of those allowed to return were left without power or cellphone service, even if their homes were spared by the flames.

Malibu resident Tony Haynes described how strong winds brought the fire through his neighbourhood during the weekend, with the sky growing dark, saying there was so much smoke he put on his scuba-diving tank to breathe. Haynes said his home survived.

"It all came down to luck and a whole lot of buckets of water," he told local media.

A smaller blaze in Southern California, the Hill Fire, was 75 percent contained, officials said.

A firefighter walks through an apartment complex as the Woolsey Fire burns in Malibu, California, US on November 9, 2018. The fire destroyed dozens of structures, forced thousands of evacuations and closed a major freeway.(Reuters)

'It's all gone'

Local residents were despondent over the fire damage.

"It's not the house, because you can rebuild. But it's what is inside the house. It's all gone," Malibu resident Marcella Shirk, 82, told local media. "And that's what hurts, those kinds of things hurt, because you can't replace that."

Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, has asked US President Donald Trump to declare a major disaster to bolster the emergency response and help residents recover. 

Trump, a Republican who has often criticised Democrat-led California on a variety of issues including immigration enforcement, blamed poor forest management by the state for the infernos.

Brian Rice, president of the California Professional Firefighters, called Trump's statement "ill-timed" given the loss of life and ongoing search for missing people.

"You can't just make a blanket statement," Rice told MSNBC on Monday, adding that fires and forest management were complicated and that weather also was a major factor.

"Right now, what is needed is, really, support," Rice said.