Death toll in California wildfires rises to at least 25 as blazes continue to rage

The death toll in a wildfire that tore through Northern California has risen to 23, the local sheriff said Saturday evening, bringing the total number across the state to at least 25. The Butte County Sheriff said investigators discovered 14 additional bodies Saturday, three days after the fire broke out.

14 bodies recovered Saturday evening, Northern California sheriff says

Alexander Tobolsky, right, and his girlfriend, Dina Arias, return to Tobolsky's home in Malibu on Saturday. (Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press)

The air thick with smoke from a ferocious wildfire that was still burning homes Saturday, residents in the Northern California town of Paradise found their cars incinerated and their homes reduced to rubble.

People surveyed the damage and struggled to cope with what they had lost. Entire neighbourhoods were levelled by a blaze that threatened to explode again with the same fury that largely incinerated the foothill town.

The death toll in the wildfire that tore through the Northern California community has risen to 23, the local sheriff said Saturday evening, bringing the total number across the state to at least 25.

Araya Cipollini cries near the remains of her family's home, one of 6,700 buildings burned in the deadly Camp Fire, in Paradise, Calif., on Saturday. (John Locher/Associated Press)

The Butte County Sheriff said investigators discovered 14 bodies Saturday, three days after the fire broke out. He said some of the victims were found in cars and in houses.

The flames burned down more than 6,700 buildings, almost all of them homes, making the blaze that destroyed Paradise one of California's most destructive wildfires since record-keeping began. 

More firefighters headed to the area Saturday, with wind gusts of up to 80 km/h expected, raising the risk of conditions similar to those when the fire started Thursday, said Alex Hoon with the National Weather Service.

The blaze — known as the Camp Fire — grew to 404 square kilometres, but crews made gains and it was partially contained, officials said.

Reduced to rubble

People in Paradise sidestepped metal that melted off cars and donned masks as they surveyed ravaged neighbourhoods — despite an evacuation order in place for the entire town of 27,000.

Some cried when they saw nothing was left.

Jan MacGregor, 81, got back to his small two-bedroom home with the help of his firefighter grandson. He found his home levelled — a large safe and some pipework 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.

Watch how thousands fled the blaze as it destroyed Paradise:

Officials say the fire burning around the town of Paradise has become the state's most destructive blaze since record-keeping began. 3:00

"We knew Paradise was a prime target for forest fire over the years," MacGregor said, adding he probably would not rebuild. 

"I have nothing here to go back to, he said.

Homes and other buildings in Paradise were still burning and fire crews were trying to extinguish those blazes, said Scott McLean, a captain with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

A destroyed home in Malibu is seen as the Woolsey Fire continued to rage on Saturday. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)

Abandoned, charred vehicles cluttered the main thoroughfare — evidence of the panicked evacuation as the wildfire tore through Thursday. The dead were found mostly inside their cars or outside vehicles and homes.

Five of the dead panicked when they couldn't escape by car because their route was cut off by a wall of fire, according to Gabriel Fallon, who rode out the blaze with his parents to care for the animals on their 10-acre farm in Paradise.

The group turned the other way and dashed down the paved street until it turned into dirt and passed the Fallons' farm, he said. One of the drivers stopped and asked Fallon if the direction they were going would lead them to safety. Fallon said he shook his head as the fire roared closer.

The motorists parked at the end of the road. On Saturday, the charred shells of the five cars remained where they had been parked.

Wildfires scorch southern California

Two destructive wildfires — called the Woolsey and Hill fire — also burned in southern California, claiming their first two victims and tearing through Malibu mansions and working-class suburban homes.

Two severely burned bodies were found inside a vehicle in Malibu, Los Angeles County sheriff's Chief John Benedict confirmed Saturday. Benedict said investigators were probing the circumstances of the two deaths.

State officials put the total number of people forced from their homes by California's fires at more than 200,000. Evacuation orders included the entire city of Malibu that's home to some of Hollywood's biggest stars. 

Celebrities such as Orlando Bloom, Caitlyn Jenner, Alyssa Milano and Lady Gaga posted messages to social media describing the damage and expressing gratitude to firefighters.

Officials implored residents affected by the evacuation orders not to return to their homes until authorities gave the all clear.

"Don't be lulled into a false sense of security," said Chief Mark Lorenzen of the Ventura County Fire Department, one of several officials who warned high winds were expected to return tomorrow and continue into next week.

Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump threatened Saturday on Twitter he would withhold federal payments to California, claiming its forest management is "so poor," but later wrote, "Please listen to evacuation orders from state and local officials!"

Tearful residents react after deadly fires tore through their neighbourhoods:

California residents react to deadly fires that swept in and destroyed homes. 1:01

California governor-elect Gavin Newsom responded on Twitter that this was "not a time for partisanship."

"This is a time for co-ordinating relief and response and lifting those in need up," he said.

People in Paradise, like so many in California, have become accustomed to wildfires, and many said they were well prepared. 

Drought, warmer weather attributed to climate change and home construction deeper into forests have led to more destructive wildfire seasons that have been starting earlier and lasting longer.

California emerged from a five-year drought last year but has had a very dry 2018, and much of the northern two-thirds of the state, including where the fire is burning, is abnormally dry, according to a U.S. government analysis.

Just 160 kilometres north of Paradise, the sixth most destructive wildfire in California history hit in July and August and was also one of the earliest.

A Sonoma Valley firefighter inspects burned out cars to make sure they are clear of human remains in Paradise, Calif., on Friday. (John Locher/Associated Press)