California fires: Death toll reaches 42, making Camp Fire deadliest in state’s history

Updated 

At least 42 people have been killed by a devastating wildfire that largely incinerated the town of Paradise in northern California, making it the deadliest single wildland blaze in the state’s history.

Key points:

  • Investigators are looking into what caused the fire as a utility company faces scrutiny
  • 228 people are officially missing, but authorities believe hundreds more are unaccounted for
  • Donald Trump has approved a request for disaster aid from California’s Governor

The latest death toll was announced by Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea at an evening news conference in the nearby city of Chico after authorities located the remains of 13 additional victims from a blaze dubbed the Camp Fire.

Victims were found in burned-out cars, in the smouldering ruins of their homes, or next to their vehicles, apparently overcome by smoke and flames before they could jump in behind the wheel and escape.

In some cases, there were only charred fragments of bone, so small that coroner’s investigators used a wire basket to sift and sort them.

Mr Honea said the number of people listed as missing in the disaster remained officially at 228, but added that his office had received more than 1,500 requests for “welfare checks” from people concerned about the fate of their loved ones.

The sheriff thought hundreds of people were still unaccounted for.

The search for bodies is continuing.

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VIDEO: Drone footage shows the extent of the devastation caused by the wildfire in Malibu. (ABC News)

The statewide death toll from several wildfires over the past week has reached 44, including two in celebrity-studded Malibu in southern California, where firefighters appeared to be gaining ground against a roughly 370-square-kilometre blaze that displaced 200,000 people and destroyed at least 370 structures, with hundreds more feared lost.

Some of the thousands of people forced from their homes by the blaze were allowed to return, and authorities reopened a major freeway through the fire zone in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

Malibu celebrities and mobile-home dwellers in nearby mountains were slowly learning whether their homes had been spared or reduced to ash.

All told, more than 8,000 firefighters statewide are battling wildfires that have destroyed more than 7,000 structures and scorched more than 840 square kilometres, with flames feeding on dry brush and driven by blowtorch winds.

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VIDEO: Residents in California flee the raging wildfires (ABC News)

In northern California, fire crews still fighting the blaze that obliterated Paradise contended with wind gusts up to 64kph overnight — with flames jumping 90 metres across Lake Oroville.

The fire had grown to 303 square kilometres and was 25 per cent contained, authorities said.

Winds were expected to weaken on Monday night (local time).

A 1933 blaze in Griffith Park in Los Angeles killed 29 people, and a series of wildfires in northern California’s wine country last fall killed 44 people.

Oft-criticised utility company under scrutiny

The cause of the northern California fire is still under investigation.

What is known is that it started on Thursday near Betsy Ann Cowley’s property in the tiny town of Pulga, near Paradise.

A day before the blaze destroyed Paradise, the giant utility Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) contacted Ms Cowley, saying they needed access to her property because their powerlines were causing sparks.

Ms Cowley said she was on vacation, and not aware of PG&E’s request.

By the time she returned, her house had burned down.

Details of the exchange between Ms Cowley and Pacific Gas, described to The Associated Press, combined with the utility’s track record in California wildfire history has again brought the company under scrutiny.

Fire investigators declared the area surrounding powerlines on Ms Cowley’s property, in an oak-filled canyon, a crime scene.

Security guards would not let PG&E inspectors pass.

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VIDEO: Firefighting planes show huge scale of wildfires (ABC News)

Publicly, PG&E said it experienced a problem on an electrical transmission line near the site of the massive fire, minutes before the blaze broke out.

It said a subsequent aerial inspection detected damage to a transmission tower on the line.

The area where Cal Fire said the blaze started, and where PG&E said sparks were detected on Ms Cowley’s property is roughly the same, according to an AP reporter at the site.

The utility, which has been criticised and sued in a number of other large and deadly fires across California, had announced before the blaze started that it might shut down power in nine counties, including Butte County where Pulga and Paradise are, because of extreme fire danger.

But it never did.

Later Thursday, PG&E said it had decided against a power cut because weather conditions did not warrant one.

State Senator Jerry Hill, a Redwood City Democrat and longtime critic of the utility, called the report of troubles on PG&E’s lines in the area extremely worrisome.

“If PG&E is found responsible for burning down the state again, at some point we have to say enough is enough and we have to ask should this company be allowed to do business in California?” Senator Hill said.

“These fires take a spark, and at least in the last few years fires have been caused by negligent behaviour by PG&E.

“We need to see how we can hold them responsible, or look at alternative way of doing business.”

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VIDEO: The death toll is continuing to rise as wildfires burn across California (ABC News)

Trump approves aid for victims

US President Donald Trump said he approved an “expedited” major disaster declaration for California over the deadly wildfires burning at both ends of the state.

Mr Trump tweeted that he “wanted to respond quickly in order to alleviate some of the incredible suffering going on”.

Democratic Governor Jerry Brown had requested the declaration, which would make victims eligible for crisis counselling, housing and unemployment help, and legal aid.

Mr Trump previously blamed “poor” forest management for the fires. Mr Brown said federal and state governments must do more forest management but said climate change was the greater source of the problem.

Original story: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-11-13/california-camp-fire-death-toll-hits-42-deadliest-in-state/10492970

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