The remains of eight more victims were found in northern California after they were overrun by flames, raising the death toll to 56 in a wildfire disaster that ranks as the most lethal and destructive in the state’s history.
More than 100 people were missing early Thursday, the majority of them over the age of 65.
“It [the fire] was so fast,” Anna Dise, a resident of Butte Creek Cayon west of Paradise, told KRCR TV. She said her father, 66-year-old Gordon Dise, was among those who died in the fire. They had little time to evacuate and their house collapsed as her father went back in to gather belongings.
Dise said she could not drive her car because the tyres had melted and that to survive, she hid overnight in a neighbour’s pond with her dogs. “I didn’t expect it to move so fast,” she said.
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.
US Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and California Governor Jerry Brown paid a visit to both sites.
The fatality count 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.
Sheriff Honea said the list of the missing would be released soon and that 100 National Guard troops would help teams already looking for remains.
“We want to be able to cover as much ground as quickly as we possibly can,” he said. “This is a very difficult task.”
Greg Gibson, a survivor of the fire, searched a message board at a shelter in Chico, California, hoping to find information about his neighbours.
“It happened so fast,” he told The Associated Press. “It would have been such an easy decision to stay, but it was the wrong choice,” Gibson said.
Others placed messages on the board, in hopes of getting answers about their friends and family.
“I hope you are okay,” said one hand-written note on the board. Another had a picture of a missing man: “If seen, please have him call.”
Butte County Sheriff Honea said in some cases victims were burned beyond recognition.
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.
The origins of both fires are under investigation. Utility companies, Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), reported to regulators they experienced problems with transmission lines or substations in areas around the time the blazes were first reported.
People who lost homes in the Northern California blaze sued PG&E on Tuesday, accusing the utility of negligence and blaming it for the fire. PG&E was not immediately available for comment.
Aided by diminished winds and rising humidity levels, fire crews had managed by late Tuesday to carve containment lines around more than a third of both fires, easing further the immediate threat to life and property.
On one small section of the fire containment lines in Butte County that crews have been erecting around the Camp Fire, wind conditions were actually helping those efforts early Wednesday morning.
Speaking to KRCR TV early Wednesday in the Feather River Canyon to the northeast of Chico, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) official Josh Campbell said strong wind gusts of up to 50kmph in the canyon 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.
More than 50,000 people remain under evacuation orders.