Death toll rises in California wildfire, matching deadliest

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PARADISE, Calif. - As relatives desperately searched shelters for missing loved ones on Sunday, crews searching the smoking ruins of Paradise and outlying areas found six more bodies, raising the death toll to 29, matching the deadliest wildfire in state history.

Wildfires continued to rage on both ends of the state, with gusty winds expected overnight which will challenge firefighters. The statewide death toll stood at 31 and appeared certain to rise. The so-called Camp fire that ravaged a swath of Northern California was the deadliest.

A total of 29 bodies have been found so far from that fire, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea told a news briefing Sunday evening. He said 228 people were still unaccounted for.

At least five search teams were working in Paradise -- a town of 27,000 that was largely incinerated on Thursday -- and in surrounding communities. Authorities called in a mobile DNA lab and anthropologists to help identify victims of the most destructive wildfire in California history.

By early afternoon, one of the two black hearses stationed in Paradise had picked up another set of remains.

People looking for friends or relatives called evacuation centers, hospitals, police and the coroner's office.

Sol Bechtold drove from shelter to shelter looking for his mother, Joanne Caddy, a 75-year-old widow whose house burned down along with the rest of her neighborhood in Magalia, just north of Paradise. She lived alone and did not drive.

Bechtold posted a flyer on social media, pinned it to bulletin boards at shelters and showed her picture around to evacuees, asking if anyone recognized her. He ran across a few of Caddy's neighbors, but they hadn't seen her.

As he drove through the smoke and haze to yet another shelter, he said, "I'm also under a dark emotional cloud. Your mother's somewhere and you don't know where she's at. You don't know if she's safe."

He added: "I've got to stay positive. She's a strong, smart woman."

Officials and relatives held out hope that many of those unaccounted for were safe and simply had no cellphones or other ways to contact loved ones. The sheriff's office in the stricken northern county set up a missing-persons call center to help connect people.

Gov. Jerry Brown said California is requesting aid from the Trump administration. President Donald Trump has blamed "poor" forest management for the fires. Brown told a press briefing that federal and state governments must do more forest management but said that's not the source of the problem.

"Managing all the forests in everywhere we can does not stop climate change," Brown said. "And those who deny that are definitely contributing to the tragedies that we're now witnessing, and will continue to witness in the coming years."

Firefighters battling the so-called Camp fire with shovels and bulldozers, flame retardants and hoses expected wind gusts up to 40 mph (64 kph) overnight Sunday. Officials said they expect the wind to die down by midday Monday, but there was still no rain in sight.

More than 8,000 firefighters in all battled three large wildfires burning across nearly 400 square miles (1,040 square kilometers) in Northern and Southern California, with out-of-state crews arriving.

Two people were found dead in a wildfire in Southern California, where flames tore through Malibu mansions and working-class Los Angeles suburbs alike.

The two severely burned bodies were discovered in a driveway in Malibu, where residents forced from their homes included Lady Gaga, Kim Kardashian West and Martin Sheen. Actor Gerard Butler said on Instagram that his Malibu home was "half-gone," and a publicist for Camille Grammer Meyer said the "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" star lost her home in the seaside enclave.

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

In Northern California, Sheriff Honea said Butte County consulted anthropologists from California State University at Chico because, in some cases, investigators have been able to recover only bones and bone fragments.

The devastation was so complete in some neighborhoods that "it's very difficult to determine whether or not there may be human remains there," Honea said.

Authorities were also bringing in a DNA lab and encouraged people with missing relatives to submit samples to aid in identifying the dead after the blaze destroyed more than 6,700 buildings, nearly all of them homes.

Firefighters gained modest ground overnight against the blaze, which grew slightly to 170 square miles (440 square kilometers) from the day before but was 25 percent contained, up from 20 percent, according to the state fire agency, Cal Fire.

But Cal Fire spokesman Bill Murphy warned that gusty winds predicted into Monday morning could spark "explosive fire behavior."

A series of wildfires in Northern California wine country last fall killed 44 people and destroyed more than 5,000 homes.

About 300,000 people statewide were under evacuation orders, most of them in Southern California.

Fire officials said Sunday morning that the larger of that region's two fires, the one that hit Malibu, grew to 130 square miles (337 square kilometers) and was 10 percent 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 count of lost structures in both Southern California fires climbed to nearly 180, authorities said. The large mobile home community of Seminole Springs, in the rugged Santa Monica Mountains north of Malibu, appeared devastated.

Brown's request for a major-disaster declaration from Trump would make victims eligible for crisis counseling, 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. While California officially emerged from a five-year drought last year, much of the northern two-thirds of the state is abnormally dry.

"Things are not the way they were 10 years ago. ... The rate of spread is exponentially more than it used to be," said Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen, urging residents to evacuate rather than stay behind to try to defend their homes.

One of the Northern California fire's victims was an ailing woman whose body was found in bed in a burned-out house in Concow, near Paradise.

Ellen Walker, who was in her early 70s, was home alone when the fire struck on Thursday, according to Nancy Breeding, a family friend.

Breeding said Walker's husband was at work and called a neighbor to tell his wife to evacuate, but she was on medication and might not have been alert. Authorities confirmed her death late Friday.

"A fireman took him to the house to confirm," Breeding said. "This is a devastating thing, and it's happening to so many people."

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