Death toll climbs to 48 in Northern California fire

The death toll in the Northern California Camp Fire grew today to 48, as recovery teams identified six more sets of human remains from Paradise, the town overrun by flames last week.

Forensic teams comb through ghostly landscape strewn with ash

A member of a volunteer search and rescue crew from Calaveras County combs through a home destroyed by the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif. (Terray Sylvester/Reuters)

The death toll in the Northern California Camp Fire grew to 48 Tuesday, as recovery teams identified six more sets of human remains from Paradise, a town once home to 27,000, overrun by flames last week.

The wildfire disaster is already ranked as the most lethal and destructive in California's history.

The latest tally of casualties from the Camp Fire was announced by Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea as forensic teams with cadaver dogs combed through a ghostly landscape strewn with ash and charred debris in the Sierra foothills, about 280 kilometres north of San Francisco. Honea says a request for 100 National Guard troops has been made to help in the search for human remains.

At least 7,600 homes have been destroyed by the Camp Fire. (Terray Sylvester/Reuters)

"We want to be able to cover as much ground as quickly as we possibly can," Honea told reporters at a briefing Tuesday evening. 

The intensified effort to locate victims came on the sixth day of a fire that destroyed more than 7,600 homes, nearly 900 other buildings and most of Paradise.

Two hundred and twenty-eight people are still listed as missing, but Honea's office also is working to determine the fate of nearly 1,300 individuals whose loved ones had requested "well-being checks" on their behalf.

Numerous postings fill the message board as evacuees, family and friends search for people missing in Northern California. (Gillian Flaccus/Associated Press)

By Tuesday evening, the Camp Fire had blackened 505 square kilometres, an area about the size of the island of Montreal. Crews have managed to contain about 35 per cent of the fire.

More than 50,000 area residents remained under evacuation orders and 15,500 structures were still listed as threatened by the flames.

However, diminished winds and higher humidity levels allowed crews to make headway against the flames, fire officials said.

Resident Jim Clark visits what is left of his home that was demolished by the Camp Fire. 'When the disaster's over it's about saving the life that's left,' said Clark, who came up with an animal rescue group to check on his goats. The goats all survived. (John Locher/Associated Press)

Lawsuit filed 

Victims of the Camp Fire have filed a lawsuit accusing Pacific Gas & Electric Co. of causing the massive blaze.

The suit filed Tuesday in state court in California accuses the utility of failing to maintain its infrastructure and properly inspect and manage its power transmission lines.

The utility's president said earlier the company doesn't know what caused the fire, but is co-operating with the investigation by state agencies.

An email to PG&E from the Associated Press about the lawsuit was not immediately returned.

PG&E told state regulators last week that it experienced a problem with a transmission line in the area of the fire just before the blaze erupted.

A landowner near where the blaze began said PG&E notified her the day before the wildfire that crews needed to come onto her property because some wires were sparking.

Identifying the dead

The search for the dead was drawing on portable devices that can identify someone's genetic material in a couple of hours, rather than days or weeks.

"In many circumstances, without rapid DNA technology, it's just such a lengthy process," says Frank DePaolo, a deputy commissioner of the New York City medical examiners' office, which has been at the forefront of the science of identifying human remains since 9/11 and is exploring how it might use a rapid DNA device.

Still, experts said Tuesday that authorities may first try more traditional methods of identification such as examining dental records. That's in part because victims might have undergone dental X-rays but not personal DNA profiles. Medical records of bone fractures, prosthetics or implants can also be helpful.

Before the Paradise tragedy, the deadliest single fire on record in California was a 1933 blaze in Griffith Park in Los Angeles that killed 29.

Roger Kelton, 67, wipes his tears while searching through the remains of his mother-in-law's home burned down by the Woolsey Fire in Agoura Hills, Calif. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)

Progress in south

At the other end of the state, firefighters made progress against a massive blaze that has killed two people in star-studded Malibu and destroyed more than 400 structures in Southern California .

The flames roared to life again in a mountainous wilderness area Tuesday, sending up a huge plume of smoke near the community of Lake Sherwood. Still, firefighters made gains. The number of people evacuated was down by about half from the day before, to around 100,000, authorities said, and the fire was partially contained.

"We're getting the upper hand here. We're feeling better," Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said.

Gov. Jerry Brown said California is "pretty well maxed out" from fighting several deadly wildfires, and he expressed gratitude for help from surrounding states and the federal government. He said the state is doing everything possible to prevent fires, but "some things only God can do."

Federal Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke says he has cancelled a planned trip to Asia and will visit the fire zones Wednesday and Thursday.

Spot fires burn on the hills above Pepperdine University during the Woolsey fire, in Malibu, Calif. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

With files from The Associated Press and CBC News