US National Guard troops have been searching through charred debris for more victims of California’s deadliest wildfire as top officials toured the ruins of a community completely destroyed by the flames.
US interior secretary Ryan Zinke joined Governor Jerry Brown on a visit to the levelled town of Paradise, telling reporters it was the worst fire devastation he had ever seen.
“Now is not the time to point fingers,” Mr Zinke said. “There are lots of reasons these catastrophic fires are happening.”
He cited warmer temperatures, dead trees and the poor forest management.
Mr Brown, a frequent critic of US president Donald Trump’s policies, said he spoke with Mr Trump, who pledged federal assistance.
“This is so devastating that I don’t really have the words to describe it,” Brown said, saying officials would need to learn how to better prevent fires from becoming so deadly.
Nearly 8,800 homes were destroyed when flames hit Paradise, a former gold-mining camp popular with retirees, on November 8th, killing at least 56 people in California's deadliest wildfire, Sheriff Kory Honea announced on Wednesday evening.
There were also three fatalities from separate blazes in Southern California.
Mr Honea said the task of searching for bodies was so vast that his office brought in another 287 searchers on Wednesday, including the National Guard troops, bringing the total number of searchers to 461 plus 22 cadaver dogs.
He said a rapid-DNA assessment system was expected to be in place soon to speed up identifications of the dead, though officials have tentatively identified 47 of the 56.
It will take years to rebuild the town of 27,000, if people decide that is what should be done, said Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains looks like a wasteland.
“The infrastructure is basically a total rebuild at this point,” Mr Long said. “You’re not going to be able to rebuild Paradise the way it was.”
Temporary schools and hospitals will be brought in, Mr Long said. Officials are also looking to bring in mobile homes for thousands of people left homeless.
Debris removal in Paradise and outlying communities will have to wait until the search for victims finishes, he said.
On one street, ash and dust flew up as roughly 20 National Guard members wearing white jumpsuits, helmets and breathing masks lifted giant heaps of bent and burned metal, in what was left of a home.
The number of missing is "fluctuating every day" as people are located or remains are found, said Steve Collins, a deputy with the Butte County Sheriff's Department.
Authorities on Wednesday released the names of about 100 people who are still missing, including many in their 80s and 90s, and dozens more could still be unaccounted for.
Sheriff’s department spokeswoman Megan McMann said the list was incomplete because detectives were concerned they would be overwhelmed with calls from relatives if the entire list were released.
“We can’t release them all at once,” Ms McMann said. “So they are releasing the names in batches.”
Accounts of narrow escapes from the flames continued to emerge. More than a dozen people who were trapped by a wall of fire survived by plunging into a cold lake.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported on Wednesday that a family of four, their 90-year-old neighbour and their pets sought safety in the chilly Concow Reservoir after the roaring fire surrounded their homes.
The family stood in shoulder-deep water as flames singed the vegetation on the shore behind them. Not far away, at least a dozen others rushed into the lake after the caravan of vehicles they were in was cut off by flames.
Before the Paradise tragedy, the deadliest single fire on record in California was a 1933 blaze in Griffith Park in Los Angeles that killed 29. – AP