California wildfire toll matches deadliest ever with 29 victims

A wildfire burning at Salvation Army Camp in Malibu, California. Photo courtesy: AFP

By Josh Edelson / Laurent Banguet

Paradise (AFP) -- The number of dead in a wildfire raging in California rose to 29 on Sunday, matching the deadliest in the state's history as recovery teams found six more bodies in the grim search through the wreckage.

The "Camp Fire" -- in the northern foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains -- is the largest and most destructive of several infernos that have sent 250,000 people fleeing their homes across the tinder-dry state, razing 6,400 homes in the town of Paradise and effectively wiping it off the map.

"Today, an additional six human remains were recovered, which brings our current total to 29," Sheriff Kory Honea told a news conference at the end of the fourth day in the struggle to contain the blaze, adding that all were found in Paradise.

In fire zones in north and south California -- where a total of at least 31 people have died -- acrid smoke blanketed the sky for miles, the sun barely visible. On the ground, cars caught in the flames were reduced to mangled metal carcasses, while power lines were gnawed by the flames.

An AFP journalist saw recovery team workers discover, bag and drive away two bodies in the Paradise area on Sunday, and the death toll looked set to rise further with scores more people still unaccounted for.

The Camp Fire has the grisly distinction of matching the 1933 Griffith Park disaster in Los Angeles -- until now the single deadliest wildfire on record, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).

At the southern end of the state, where the "Woolsey Fire" is threatening mansions and mobile homes alike in the coastal celebrity redoubt of Malibu, the death toll has been limited to two victims found in a vehicle on a private driveway.

Los Angeles County Fire chief Daryl Osby told reporters of his gratitude to firefighters "who've done all they could do save tens of thousands of people's lives and thousands of people's homes."

'The new abnormal '

Rescuers also spent hours on Saturday collecting bodies around Paradise and placing them in a black hearse. Body parts were transported by bucket, while intact remains were carried in body bags.

At the Holly Hills Mobile Estate the mobile homes had been reduced to smoldering piles of debris. Yellow police tape delineated spots that were tagged "Doe C" and "Doe D," a grim marker of the bodies that had recently been removed.

Locals fled the danger, but police told AFP some farmers returned to check on their cattle.

Fanned by strong winds, the "Camp Fire" has scorched 111,000 acres (45,000 hectares) and is 25 percent contained, Cal Fire said. So far, three of the more than 4,000 firefighters deployed have been injured.

They estimate they will need three weeks to fully contain the blaze.

Evacuation orders have been issued to more than a quarter of a million people across California, with authorities urging residents not to ignore warnings to flee.

"This is not the new normal, this is the new abnormal. And this new abnormal will continue, certainly in the next 10 to 15 to 20 years," California Governor Jerry Brown told a news conference on Sunday.

"Unfortunately, the best science is telling us that the dryness, warmth, drought, all those things, they're going to intensify," he said.

'Dangerously wrong'

Almost 6,000 miles away, President Donald Trump, in France for World War I commemorations, drew fierce criticism for an unsympathetic reaction to the devastation.

"There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor," Trump tweeted, threatening to withdraw federal support.

Brian Rice, the head of the California Professional Firefighters, slammed the tweet as "ill-informed, ill-timed and demeaning to those who are suffering as well as the men and women on the front lines."

He said the president's claim that forest policies were mismanaged "is dangerously wrong."

Shell-shocked

In southern California, the "Woolsey Fire" engulfed parts of Thousand Oaks, where the community is still shell-shocked after a Marine Corps veteran shot dead 12 people in a country music bar on Wednesday.

It has consumed around 83,000 acres, destroyed at least 177 buildings and was 10 percent contained, Cal Fire said Sunday.

The blaze reached the Paramount Ranch, destroying sets used for hundreds of productions including HBO'S sci-fi western "Westworld," network officials said.

Keegan Gibbs, 33, was crushed to find his childhood Malibu home had been consumed by flames.

"Malibu is a really small community and gets a bad rap for being this kind of elitist, snobby place, and it's exactly the opposite," Gibbs told The Los Angeles Times.


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