Hell in Paradise: fire crews in grim search for California’s dead

Firefighters took advantage of a brief calm overnight to make headway against the wildfires on Sunday

Search teams scoured the carnage of California’s most destructive wildfire for victims on Sunday, as the state-wide death toll rose to 26.

High winds have hampered efforts to save lives and rescue property but firefighters took advantage of a brief calm overnight to make headway against the blazes.

However, conditions were expected to be hellish, with winds reaching as high as 110 kilometres per hour.

In fire zones north and south, acrid smoke blanketed the sky for miles, with the sun barely visible. On the ground, cars caught in the wildfires were reduced to mangled metal carcasses, while power lines were gnawed by flames.


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The largest inferno – the so-called "Camp Fire" in the northern foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains – has destroyed 6,700 homes, businesses and other buildings in the town of Paradise, effectively wiping it off the map.

Twenty-three people lost their lives in and around the community of 27,000, according to authorities.

An AFP journalist in Magalia, a 10-mile drive north of Paradise, saw workers from a local mortuary team recover a body which was put into a blue bag and loaded onto a hearse.

Only two Californian wildfires have claimed more lives – the most recent of which was more than a quarter-century ago.

At the southern end of the state, where the "Woolsey Fire" is threatening mansions and mobile homes alike in the coastal celebrity area of Malibu, the death toll was limited to two victims, found in a vehicle on a private driveway.

Los Angeles County Fire chief Daryl Osby told reporters of his gratitude to firefighters “who’ve done all they could do save tens of thousands of people’s lives and thousands of people’s homes.”

Rescuers spent Saturday collecting bodies around Paradise and placing them in a black hearse. Charred body parts were transported by bucket, while intact remains were carried in body bags.

At the Holly Hills Mobile Estate, mobile homes were reduced to smouldering piles of debris. Yellow police tape delineated spots that were tagged Doe C and Doe D, a grim marker of the bodies that were removed.

Locals fled the danger, but police told AFP some farmers returned to check on their cattle.

Fanned by strong winds, the Camp Fire has so far scorched 109,000 acres (45,000 hectares), with 25 per cent contained, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said. Three of the 4,000 firefighters were injured.

Fire teams estimate they will need three weeks to fully contain the blaze.

Evacuation orders have been issued to more than 250,000 people across California, with authorities urging residents not to ignore warnings to flee.

“We’re entering a new normal. Things are not the way they were 10 years ago,” Ventura County Fire Department chief Mark Lawrenson said.

“The rate of spread is exponentially more than it used to be. Please heed evacuation warnings. Do not stay in your homes to try to defend them.”

Almost 6,000 miles away, US President Donald Trump, in France for the First World War armistice centenary commemorations, drew fierce criticism for his unsympathetic reaction to the devastation.

“There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor,” Mr Trump tweeted, threatening to withdraw federal support.

Brian Rice, the head of the California Professional Firefighters, slammed the tweet as “ill-informed, ill-timed and demeaning to those who are suffering as well as the men and women on the front lines”.

He said the president’s claim that forest policies were mismanaged “is dangerously wrong”.

The tweet also drew political criticism. Republican Senator Cory Gardner told ABC News on Sunday: “I don’t think it’s appropriate to threaten funding.

“That’s not going to happen. Funding will be available. It always is available to our people wherever they are, whatever disaster they are facing.”

In southern California, the Woolsey Fire engulfed parts of Thousand Oaks, where the community is still shell-shocked after a Marine Corps veteran shot dead 12 people in a country music bar on Wednesday.

It has consumed 83,000 acres, destroyed at least 177 buildings and was ten per cent contained, Cal Fire said on Sunday.

The blaze reached the Paramount Ranch, destroying sets used for hundreds of productions including HBO'S sci-fi western Westworld, network officials said.

Keegan Gibbs, 33, was crushed to find his childhood Malibu home had been consumed by flames.

"Malibu is a really small community and gets a bad rap for being this kind of elitist, snobby place, and it's exactly the opposite," Mr Gibbs told the Los Angeles Times.