California fire death toll rises to 71 with more than 1000 still missing

Recovery workers with cadaver dogs have pressed on with their search for more victims in a flame-ravaged northern California town as authorities seek clues to the fate of more than 1000 people reported missing in the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history.

Remains of at least 71 people have been recovered so far in and around the Sierra foothills hamlet of Paradise, which was home to nearly 27,000 residents before the town was largely incinerated by the deadly Camp Fire on the night of November 8.

More than a week later, firefighters have managed to carve containment lines around 45 per cent of the blaze’s perimeter, up from 35 per cent a day earlier, even as the burned landscape grew slightly to 57,000 hectares.

Besides the staggering toll on human life, property losses from the blaze make it California’s most the destructive on record, posing a challenge of providing long-term shelter for many thousands of displaced residents.

A search and rescue dog searches for human remains in Paradise, California on Friday. Source: AP Photo via AAP

With nearly 12,000 homes and buildings up in smoke, many refugees from the fire have taken up temporary residence with friends and family, while others have pitched tents or were camping out of their vehicles.

More than 1100 evacuees were being housed in 14 emergency shelters set up in churches, schools and community centres around the region.

Search teams, meanwhile, combed through charred, rubble-strewn expanses of burned-out neighbourhoods looking for bodies – or anything else that might carry human DNA for identification purposes.

Search and rescue personnel search a home for human remains in Paradise, California. Source: AP Photo via AAP

Some of those still unaccounted for have likely survived but not yet notified family or authorities that they are alive, either because they lack telephone service or are unaware anyone is looking for them.

On the other hand, there may be some people who perished but whose relatives have yet to report them missing.

Communication disruptions after the fire have added to the confusion.

People set up tents in front of Walmart in Chico, California. Source: SIPA USA via AAP
A photo from November 8 which shows a home burning as the Camp Fire rages through Paradise. Source: AP Photo via AAP

The disaster already ranks among the deadliest wildfires in the United States since the turn of the last century.

Authorities attribute the death toll partly to the speed with which flames raced through the town with little advance warning, driven by howling winds and fuelled by drought-desiccated scrub and trees.

More than 300 California National Guard troops have been deployed to the fire zone to help search for victims, and to fill logistical, medical and administrative roles.

The Camp Fire coincided with a series of smaller blazes in Southern California, most notably the Woolsey Fire, which is linked to three fatalities and has destroyed at least 500 structures near the Malibu coast west of Los Angeles.

It was 57 per cent contained on Friday.