Northern California wildfire now deadliest in state history

Experts in identifying human remains joined California police and firefighters on Monday in the grim task of sifting through the charred debris of homes destroyed in the most devastating wildfire in state history, searching for hundreds of missing people.

42 people dead in Camp Fire near Paradise, more than 200 still unaccounted for

A firefighter rests after felling trees while fighting the Camp Fire. (John Locher/Associated Press)

The dead were found in burned-out cars, in the smoldering ruins of their homes, or next to their vehicles, apparently overcome by smoke and flames before they could jump 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.

At least 42 people were confirmed dead Monday evening in the wildfire that turned the Northern California town of Paradise and outlying areas into hell on earth, making it the deadliest fire in state history. The search for bodies continued Monday.

Hundreds of people were unaccounted for by the Butte County sheriff's reckoning, four days after the fire swept over the town of 27,000 and practically wiped it off the map with flames so fierce that authorities brought in a mobile DNA lab and forensic anthropologists to help identify the dead.

A member of the Sacramento County Coroner's office looks for human remains in the rubble of a house burned at the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif. (John Locher/Associated Press)

Experts in identifying human remains joined California police and firefighters on Monday in the grim task of working through the charred debris of homes destroyed in the most devastating wildfire in state history, searching for hundreds of missing people.

University anthropologists, trained in spotting bone fragments and other blackened body parts, systematically mined the ash and detritus of buildings destroyed when a wildfire swept through Paradise, a town with a population of 27,000 about 300 kilometres north of San Francisco. 

Authorities encouraged people with missing relatives to submit samples to aid in identifying the dead. They have also now requested cadaver dogs be brought in and they are expected to arrive in the coming days. 

Fire crews clear rubble from the road near a building burned in the Camp Fire, in Paradise, Calif. (John Locher/Associated Press)

The number of people killed in the Paradise fire alone makes it the deadliest single fire on record in California. A 1933 blaze in Griffith Park in Los Angeles killed 29 people, and a series of wildfires in Northern California wine country last fall killed 44 people and destroyed more than 5,000 homes. 

At least  228 people remain unaccounted for in and around Paradise.

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

Yuba and Butte county sheriff deputies carry a body bag containing a deceased victim in Paradise on Saturday. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

Homes and businesses lost

Glenn Forrest's family lost two homes and a business in the fire. He told CBC News that he didn't think his family would make it out of the fire zone alive. "This is the first time in my life, I think, that I ever felt like I could have died at any moment."

He credits his mother for staying calm as she drove through flames and hot ash. "There were cars swerving everywhere, cars turning around. We were afraid we would either get hit by another car ... or a tree would fall. Our car could have caught fire or exploded."

City evacuation plan criticized

Some residents have complained the evacuation of Paradise was poorly executed and that city officials weren't prepared. Paradise Mayor Jody Jones says no community could be prepared for a fire like the Camp Fire.

"We had a very robust evacuation plan that we had practised and used to in the past," she told host Carol Off in an interview today on As It Happens. "It's a zone-based. But when you have your entire town evacuated at the same time — not one zone or two zones, but the entire town — there isn't any way that your transportation infrastructure can handle that." 

Firefighters did gain modest ground overnight against the Camp Fire, which grew slightly to 440 square kilometres from the day before but was 25 per cent contained, according to state fire agency, Cal Fire.

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Fires continue to burn in Southern California

Two people were also found dead in a wildfire in Southern California, where flames tore through Malibu mansions and working-class Los Angeles suburbs alike. The severely burned bodies were discovered in a long residential driveway in celebrity-studded Malibu, where those forced out of homes included Lady Gaga, Kim Kardashian West, Guillermo del Toro and Martin Sheen.

Some residents who fled the fire were allowed to return home Monday, but hundreds of thousands remained under evacuation orders as authorities said the number of homes that burned was expected to grow significantly.

Surviving Malibu mansions stood in stark contrast to an utterly blackened landscape.

Firefighters battle the Woolsey Fire as it continues to burn in Malibu, Calif. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)

Flames also besieged Thousand Oaks, the Southern California city still mourning the 12 people killed in a shooting rampage at a country music bar Wednesday night.

Dana Baker, a Canadian who lives and works in Thousand Oaks, told CBC News the community is having trouble coping with the fires so soon after the shooting.

"I am tired. Between not sleeping well, trying to check on everybody, you know, to make sure they're OK after two tragedies. No one is OK," she said. "I can hear sirens right now. We're all just on edge."

Roger Kelly, 69, defied evacuation orders Sunday and hiked into Seminole Springs, his lakeside mobile home community in the Santa Monica Mountains north of Malibu.

His found his house intact, but dozens were destroyed just half a block away and virtually everything around the community had turned to ash.

"I just started weeping," Kelly said. "I just broke down. Your first view of it, man it just gets you."

The fire's cause remained under investigation but Southern California Edison reported to the California Public Utilities Commission that there was an outage on an electrical circuit near the location where the fire started as the Santa Ana winds blew through the region.

Osby said Monday that nothing has been ruled out for the fire's cause.

Winds hamper firefighting efforts

Fire officials said Monday that the Woolsey Fire, the larger of the region's two fires and the one burning in and around Malibu, grew to 395 square kilometres and was 20 per cent contained.

But the strong, dry Santa Ana winds that blow from the interior toward the coast returned after a one-day lull, fanning the flames.

The number of structures destroyed by both Southern California fires climbed to at least 370, authorities said, while emphasizing that more than 50,000 had been saved. Looting was also reported in areas affected by the southern fires and arrests were made, police reported.

Firefighters battle a blaze at the Salvation Army Camp in Malibu, Calif. (Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

All told, 300,000 people were under evacuation orders up and down the state.

Gov. Jerry Brown said he is requesting a major-disaster declaration from U.S. President Donald Trump that would make victims eligible for crisis counselling, housing and unemployment help, and legal aid.

Drought, warmer weather attributed to climate change and the building of homes deeper into forests have led to longer and more destructive wildfire seasons in California.

Trump attacks on Twitter

On Saturday, Trump tweeted, "There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!"

Asked about the tweet today, L.A. County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said he found it very hurtful to first responders. "I can tell you that we are in extreme climate change right now. We don't control the climate. We're doing all we can to prevent incidents and mitigate incidents and save lives," he told reporters at a news briefing. "I personally find that statement unsatisfactory and it's very hurtful for all first responders putting their lives on the line to protect lives and property." 

An air tanker drops fire retardant on flames in Malibu, Calif. (Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

Jan McGregor, 81, got back to his small two-bedroom home in Paradise with the help of his firefighter grandson. He found his home levelled — a large metal safe and pipes from his septic system the only recognizable traces. The safe was punctured with bullet holes from guns inside that went off in the scorching heat.

"We knew Paradise was a prime target for forest fire over the years," he said. "We've had 'em come right up to the city limits — oh, yeah — but nothing like this."

McGregor said he probably won't rebuild: "I have nothing here to go back to."

With files from CBC News and Reuters