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Northern California wildfire death toll hits 56 as searches intensify

Authorities have reported eight more fatalities from an ongoing wildfire in northern California, bringing the death toll to 56 in the deadliest blaze in state history.

Authorities say fire has grown to 555 square kilometres, 130 people still unaccounted

Sheriff's deputies recover the bodies of more victims of the Camp Fire in northern California. (Noah Berger/Associated Press)

Authorities have reported eight more fatalities from an ongoing wildfire in northern California, bringing the death toll to 56 in the deadliest blaze in state history.

The announcement came Wednesday after authorities ramped up the search for more victims. They said 130 people were still unaccounted for.

The Camp Fire has grown in size to more than 555 square kilometres and has destroyed nearly 9,000 homes. At an evening news conference, officials said that more than 5,000 fire personnel are battling the blaze that is now 35 per cent contained.

The fire that started last Thursday has displaced 52,000 people and incinerated Paradise, a town in the Sierra foothills about 280 kilometres north of San Francisco.

Officials said that 1,385 people were being housed in shelters, adding that there is a norovirus outbreak at the shelter in the nearby city of Chico.

Survey the damage to one California community from above:

A wildfire has destroyed more than 7,600 homes, and most of Paradise, Calif. 0:58

"Progress is being made," said Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), at a news conference. He was flanked by California Gov. Jerry Brown, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and other officials.

Fire crews in northern California seized on improved weather on Wednesday in their six-day-old battle to suppress the Camp Fire, as diminished winds and rising humidity allowed firefighters to carve containment lines around more than a third of the perimeter.

"This is one of the worst disasters I've seen in my career, hands down," Brock Long, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), told reporters in Chico.

A search and rescue worker assists a cadaver dog that fell through the rubble while looking for Camp Fire victims in Paradise, Calif. (Noah Berger/Associated Press)

The Camp Fire — fed by drought-desiccated scrub and fanned by strong winds — has capped a catastrophic California wildfire season that experts largely attribute to prolonged dry spells that are symptomatic of global climate change.

Wind-driven flames roared through Paradise so swiftly that residents were forced to flee for their lives with little or no warning. Officials say they're looking to bring in mobile homes for thousands of people who have lost their houses.

Mark Ghilarducci, of the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services, says U.S. and state officials also are looking into hotels and rental properties to house people driven from the town of Paradise and neighbouring communities.

Stories of survival

Anna Dise, a resident of Butte Creek Canyon west of Paradise, told KRCR-TV that her father, Gordon Dise, 66, was among those who died in the fire. They had little time to evacuate and their house collapsed on her father when he went back in to gather belongings.

Dise said she could not drive her car because the tires had melted. To survive, she hid overnight in a neighbour's pond with her dogs.

"It was so fast," Dise said. "I didn't expect it to move so fast."

A helicopter drops water on a burning ridge in the Feather River Canyon, east of Paradise, on Sunday. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

The Butte County disaster coincided with a flurry of blazes in Southern California, most notably the Woolsey Fire, which has killed two people, destroyed more than 400 structures and, at its height, displaced about 200,000 people in the mountains and foothills west of Los Angeles.

Zinke toured the burned out remains of Paradise on Wednesday, saying it's not the time to "point fingers." He lamented the destruction and said there are many factors in wildfires, including rising temperatures.

California Gov. Jerry Brown, centre, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, second from right, tour the fire-ravaged Paradise. (Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)

After touring some of California's earlier wildfire zones in August, Zinke had blamed "gross mismanagement of forests" because of timber harvest restrictions that he said were supported by "environmental terrorist groups."

But when pressed by reporters on Wednesday, Zinke demurred. "Now is really not the time to point fingers," he said. "It is a time for America to stand together."

He was visiting the town with Jerry Brown days after U.S. President Donald Trump also blamed "poor" forest management for the fire. Brown says climate change is the greater source of the problem.

Still, the governor said in a phone call today, Trump pledged "the full resources of the federal government."

The fatality count from the Camp Fire far exceeds the previous record for the greatest loss of life from a single wildfire in California history — 29 people killed by the Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles in 1933.

Cause unknown

The origins of both fires are under investigation. Utility companies, Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric, reported to regulators they experienced problems with transmission lines or substations in areas around the time the blazes were first reported. Shares in PG&E plunged Wednesday after the utility said in the filing that it could face a significant financial hit if its equipment is found to be the cause.

A fireplace and chimney are all that remains of a house on Busch Drive, a casualty of the Woolsey Fire, on Wednesday in Malibu, Calif. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

A group of three law firms representing multiple victims of the Camp Fire has filed a lawsuit against PG&E, alleging negligence by the utility company and that "its inexcusable behaviour contributed to the cause" of the blaze.

Speaking to KRCR-TV early Wednesday in the Feather River Canyon to the northeast of Chico, Cal Fire official Josh Campbell said strong wind gusts in the canyon of up to 50 km/h were actually helping local crews by slowing the spread of the fire.

"This gives us the opportunity to construct our lines, so we can be ready for the fire and put it out," he said.

With files from The Associated Press