Sheriff: Wildfire death toll rises to 79

By Sudin Thanawala and Janie Har

A Northern California sheriff has said two more sets of human remains have been found, bringing the total number killed in a devastating California wildfire to 79.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea says the list of names of those unaccounted for after a deadly wildfire has dropped to around 700 – around 300 fewer than what was posted at the start of Monday.

Authorities stressed many of the people on the list may be safe and unaware they have been reported missing.

The so-called Camp Fire swept through the rural town of Paradise on November 8 and has destroyed nearly 12,000 homes.

(PA Graphics)

Christina Taft is in a frantic search for her mother Victoria, who refused to evacuate their Paradise home as flames neared, and six days ago she gave authorities a cheek swab to identify remains that are likely her mother’s.

She still has not received confirmation her mother is dead, and says she has been frustrated by what she feels is a lack of communication from Butte County officials.

“They said they found remains, they didn’t say her remains. They won’t confirm it to me the whole time,” Ms Taft said.

Progress has been slow, and the many days of uncertainty are adding to the stress.

More than a dozen people are marked as “unknowns”, without first or last names.

In some cases, names are listed twice or more times under different spellings. Others are confirmed dead, and their names simply have not been taken off yet.

Survivors and relatives of those caught in the fire are using social media to get the word out: In some cases, to post that their loved ones were safe; in others, to plead for help.

“Aunt Dorothy is still missing. There has been confusion going on at the Sheriffs office regarding her whereabouts because she was taken off the list,” a man wrote on Facebook on Monday.

“I have an uncle and two cousins that I have not been able to make contact with,” one woman wrote on Facebook, with their names. “Any info would be appreciated.”

Mr Honea said he released the rough and incomplete list in the hope people would contact authorities to say they are okay.

He called it “raw data” compiled from phone calls, emails and other reports, saying: “We put the list out. It will fluctuate. It will go up. It will go down because this is in a state of flux.

“My view on this has been that I would prefer to get the information out and start working to find who is unaccounted for and who is not.

“I would put progress over perfection.”

Smoke and haze from wildfires hovers over Russian Hill (Eric Risberg/AP)

Officials have also culled reports from the earliest hours of the disaster, when fire knocked out mobile phone communications and thousands fled, some to safe shelter that was hundreds of miles away.

Honea said his office was working with the Red Cross to account for people entering and leaving shelters. Evacuees are also helping authorities narrow the list, sometimes by chance.

Robert James Miles, who lost his Paradise trailer in the blaze, was staying at a shelter in Chico where people posted names of those they had not heard from.

Mr Miles said he alerted a Red Cross worker Saturday that he recognised eight names on the board as friends he knew were okay.

“Two of them were in the shelter,” he said with a chuckle.

Owen and Phyllis Suihkonen understand the chaos. Their family is scattered after they lost their home to the wildfire, as did their two adult children.

Phyllis Suihkonen, 69, says she spotted the names of two friends on the list of unaccounted people, and does not know if they are safe.

But her daughter has seen names of friends who are okay and called sheriff’s officials to let them know.

“I’m concerned,” Phyllis said. “But like I said, there’s been other friends’ names on the list that have been accounted for and taken off.”

Meanwhile, those searching for bodies were in a race against the weather, as rain was forecast for Wednesday.

The precipitation could help knock out the flames, but it could also hinder the search by washing away fragmentary remains and turning ash into a thick paste.

The fire, which burned at least 236 square miles and destroyed nearly 12,000 homes, was 70% contained on Monday.

Alcatraz Island, San Francisco’s cable cars, the Oakland Zoo and other San Francisco Bay Area area attractions were closed because of smoke from the blaze some 140 miles away.

Several San Francisco museums over the weekend offered free admission to give people something to do indoors.

California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said it is “way too early” to estimate the damage done by the wildfire.

But for perspective, he said the Northern California fires that gutted 6,800 homes last year resulted in insured losses of 12.6 billion US dollars.

“It’s going to be a long and painful process,” he said.