California wildfires: 'If this town recovers, it will take years'

Statewide death toll hits 63 with more than 630 people unaccounted for as search continues for remains.

    The toll in the deadliest wildfires in recent California history climbed to 59 [Josh Edelson/AFP]
    The toll in the deadliest wildfires in recent California history climbed to 59 [Josh Edelson/AFP]

    At least 63 are now dead in the US' deadliest wildfire in a century as officials announced they have a missing persons list with 631 names on it in an ever-evolving accounting.

    The nearly 570 square kilometre blaze in northern California was 40 percent contained, the state fire agency said on Thursday, and firefighters succeeded in slowing the flames' advance towards populated areas.

    More than 450 searchers were assigned to look for remains in Paradise, which was all but destroyed on November, and in outlying areas such as Magalia, a forested town of about 11,000. Many of the missing were elderly and from Magalia.

    "If this town does recover, it's going to take many, many years," said Johnny Pohmagevich, an 18-year Magalia resident who lives up the road from many burned homes.

    Police drove around town, searching for those still in their homes and checking if they needed food and water.

    Rescue workers sift through rubble in search of human remains at a burned property in Paradise, California [Josh Edelson/Al Jazeera] 

    Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said Wednesday night that 130 people were missing. His office later released a list of 300 people who were unaccounted for.

    Honea said the number of missing had more than doubled on Thursday as investigators went back and checked emergency calls made when the fire broke out a week ago.

    "I want you to understand that the chaos we were dealing with was extraordinary," he told journalists, in explaining the staggering new number.

    Honea said he believes there are people on the list who fled the blaze and don't realize they were reported missing. He said authorities were making the list public so people could see if they're on it, and let authorities know they are safe.

    At the other end of the state, crews continued to battle wildfires in southern California, including a blaze of more than 396 square km that destroyed over 500 structures in Malibu and nearby communities. At least three deaths were reported.

    Homes destroyed

    Officials in Northern California put the number of homes lost there at nearly 8,800, and the sheriff said the task of recovering remains had become so vast that his office brought in 287 more searchers Wednesday, including National Guard troops. The search crews used 22 cadaver dogs.

    Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke joined California's Governor Jerry Brown on a visit to Paradise on Wednesday, saying it was the worst fire devastation he had ever seen.

    "Now is not the time to point fingers," Zinke said. "There are lots of reasons these catastrophic fires are happening." 

    Paradise, California was almost completely destroyed [Josh Edelson/AFP] 

    The governor said officials would need to learn how to better prevent fires from becoming so deadly.

    It will take years to rebuild, if people decide that's what should be done, said Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "The infrastructure is basically a total rebuild at this point," he said.

    SOURCE: AP news agency