Firefighters backed by air tankers and helicopters battled California’s raging wildfires for a seventh day on Wednesday as the authorities in the worst-hit county released a list of over 100 missing people.
Most of those unaccounted for are from the Butte County town of Paradise, which was virtually erased from the map by the so-called “Camp Fire” blaze.
Paradise, a town of around 26,000 in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, was popular with retirees and many of those reported missing by the sheriff’s office are elderly — in their 70s, 80s and 90s.
Virtually every home in Paradise, located 130 kilometers north of the state capital Sacramento, was destroyed by the fast-moving fire fueled by high winds.
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At least 51 deaths have been reported so far from the deadliest wildfires in California’s recent history and body recovery teams were going house-to-house with cadaver dogs in Paradise on Wednesday.
“We are in the midst of a catastrophe,” Governor Jerry Brown told a press conference. “The fire was unprecedented, overwhelming, so a lot of people got caught.”
Brock Long, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said Paradise was looking at a “total rebuild” with so many homes, businesses and infrastructure destroyed.
“This is going to be a very long and frustrating event for the citizens of Paradise,” Long said. “We’re going to have to find a new normal.” “You’re not going to be able to rebuild Paradise the way it was.”
An AFP reporter in Paradise on Wednesday saw crews removing trees, repairing fences along roads and towing away cars. A policeman said he did not know when residents would be allowed back in.
Forty-eight deaths have been reported from the “Camp Fire,” mostly in Paradise, while three people have died in the “Woolsey Fire.” While the cause of the “Camp Fire” is still under investigation, a lawsuit has been filed against the local power company, PG&E, by fire victims claiming negligence by the utility.
The complaint alleged that the fire began on November 8 when a high voltage transmission line failed, igniting a vegetation fire.
As thousands of firefighters fought the “Camp Fire” in northern California and thousands more battled the “Woolsey Fire” north of Los Angeles, incredible tales have emerged of courage and survival.
A family of four submerged themselves in a chilly mountain reservoir with several of their neighbours to escape the flames.
An unknown man is being credited with saving lives by using a bulldozer to clear clogged roads of burning cars and allow people to escape to safety.
A man who asked to be identified by only his first name, Scott, told the San Francisco Chronicle that when the “Camp Fire” surrounded his home in Concow in Butte County he and his family plunged into a reservoir along with a 90-year-old neighbor, Bruno.
“Bruno was saying, ‘Just leave me. I can’t do this,'” Scott, 51, told the newspaper. “I said, ‘Bruno, we’re not going to leave you. And I’m not going to burn, so you better hurry.'” They remained in the cold water as flames licked the shore and made their way to a small island in the reservoir after finding a pair of rowboats.
Scott told the Chronicle it was so cold in the water that he waded back towards the fire on the shore at several points to warm up.
The “Camp Fire” has ravaged 135,000 acres (54,632 hectares) of land and is 35 per cent contained, according to Cal Fire.
It has destroyed some 7,600 homes and 260 commercial properties. Battling the blaze are more than 5,600 fire personnel, some from as far away as Washington state and Texas.
The “Woolsey Fire” has razed 97,620 acres (39,505 hectares) and has been 47 per cent contained.
Cal Fire said more than 3,500 fire personnel were battling the “Woolsey Fire,” which has destroyed the Malibu homes of several celebrities including Miley Cyrus, Neil Young, Robin Thicke, Shannen Doherty and Gerard Butler.