The potential magnitude of the wildfire disaster in Northern California escalated as officials raised the death toll to 63 and released a missing-persons list with 631 names on it more than a week after the flames swept through.
The fast-growing roster of people unaccounted for probably includes some who fled the blaze and do not realize they have been reported missing, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said late Thursday.
He said he made the list public in the hope that people will see they are on it and let authorities know they are OK.
“The chaos that we were dealing with was extraordinary,” Honea said of the crisis last week, when the flames razed the town of Paradise and outlying areas in what has proved to be the nation’s deadliest wildfire in a century. “Now we’re trying to go back out and make sure that we’re accounting for everyone.”
Firefighters continued gaining ground against the 575-square-kilometre blaze, which was reported 45 per cent contained Friday. It destroyed 9,700 houses and 144 apartment buildings, the state fire agency said.
Rain in the forecast Tuesday night could help knock down the flames but also complicate efforts by more 450 searchers to find human remains in the ashes. In some cases, search crews are finding little more than bones and bone fragments.
Some 52,000 people have been displaced to shelters, the motels, the homes of friends and relatives, and a Walmart parking lot and an adjacent field in Chico, a dozen miles away from the ashes.
At the vast parking lot, evacuees wondered if they still have homes, if their neighbours are still alive, and where they will go from here.
“It’s cold and scary,” said Lilly Batres, 13, one of the few children there, who fled with her family from the forested town of Magalia and didn’t know whether her home was still standing. “I feel like people are going to come into our tent.”
At the other end of the state, more residents were being allowed back in their homes near Los Angeles after a wildfire torched an area the size of Denver. The 153-square-mile blaze was 69 per cent contained after destroying more than 600 homes and other structures, authorities said. At least three deaths were reported.
Schools across a large swath of the state were closed because of smoke, and San Francisco’s world-famous open-air cable cars were pulled off the streets.
Information for contacting the Federal Emergency Management Agency for assistance was posted on a board that allowed people to write the names of those they believed were missing. Several names had “Here” written next to them.
The Associated Press