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Deaths mount in deadliest California wildfires

November 14, 2018

The devastating wildfires in California are still not completely under control and the death toll is sure to rise. Meanwhile, even as firefighters work to control the flames, coroners search for bodies.

Thousands of firefighters spent a fifth day digging battle lines to contain California's worst ever wildfire as the wind-whipped flames cleaved a merciless path through the state's northern hills
Image: Getty Images/J.Edelson

Authorities in California moved to set up a rapid DNA-analysis system and bring in cadaver dogs, mobile morgues and more search teams in an intensified effort to find and identify victims of the deadliest wildfire in California history, an inferno that killed at least 48 people.

Five days after flames decimated the Northern California town of Paradise, population 27,000, officials were still unsure of the exact number of missing. But the death toll was all but certain to rise.

"I want to recover as many remains as we possibly can, as soon as we can. Because I know the toll it takes on loved ones," Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said Monday night as he announced the discovery of 13 more dead.

More than a dozen coroner search-and-recovery teams searched for bodies across the apocalyptic landscape that was once the small Sierra foothill town of Paradise, while anxious relatives visited shelters and called police and hospitals in hopes of finding loved ones.

Chaplains accompanied some coroner search teams which visited dozens of addresses belonging to people reported missing. No cars in the driveway were a considered a good sign. If there was one car, it was a little more ominous and multiple burned-out vehicles more reason for worry.

Utility company under scrutiny

Betsy Ann Cowley, a landowner near where the blaze began, said the utility company PG&E notified her the day before the blaze that crews needed to come onto her property because the utility's wires were sparking. Investigators have since declared the area a crime scene.

State investigators are trying to establish the cause of the inferno and appeared to be focusing in on Pacific Gas & Electric Co. power lines.

PG&E had no comment on the landowner's account but acknowledged last week that it was having problems with its transmission lines in the area just before the fire erupted.

Meanwhile, more than 5,000 firefighters battling the blaze made gains overnight, slowing the flames' advance toward Oroville, a town of about 19,000 people.

The fire, which has charred 195 square miles (505 square kilometers) and destroyed more than 6,400 homes since it started Thursday, was reportedly about 30 percent contained.

Southern California

In Southern California, firefighters continued making progress against a blaze that killed two people in Malibu and destroyed over 400 structures. 

Crews lit backfires and extended containment lines overnight. Officials said they expected to have the more than 146-square-mile (378-square-kilometer) fire fully contained by Thursday.

The fire burned through part of a former research site that once housed a nuclear reactor and has been undergoing a years-long waste cleanup.

California Malibu fire
Homes along Mulholland Drive were not spared in the Malibu fireImage: Getty Images/R. Beck

Measurements taken over the weekend however, found no elevated levels of radiation, the state Department of Toxic Substances control said in a statement.

The 48 dead in Northern California surpassed the number of victims for the deadliest single fire on record, a 1933 blaze in Griffith Park in Los Angeles.

A series of wildfires in Northern California's wine country last fall killed 44 people and destroyed more than 5,000 homes.

av/jm (AP, Reuters, AFP, dpa)

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