PARADISE, Calif. – Devastating wildfires on both ends of California pushed into new territory Saturday, as fatigued firefighters worked to evacuate residents in harm’s way and contain blazes that already have claimed at least 25 lives, destroyed thousands of homes and other structures and scorched hundreds of square miles.
The three fires began Thursday — the largest in Northern California, where a Sierra Nevada town of 27,000 was destroyed by a fast moving-fire that quickly grew into the state’s most destructive on record. In Southern California, two fires were burning in the drought-stricken canyons and hills north and west of downtown Los Angeles.
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The death toll from the fire that quickly overwhelmed and incinerated the historic Northern California town of Paradise rose to 23 after 14 additional bodies were found Saturday. The victims have not been identified.
The fire became California’s third deadliest since record-keeping began, with the death toll surpassing that from a blaze last year that ravaged the city of Santa Rosa.
The Butte County Sheriff’s office has 110 outstanding reports of missing people, Sheriff Kory Honea said.
In some cases, investigators have only been able to recover bones and bone fragments, he said. He encouraged family members of the missing to submit DNA samples that could be compared with remains that are recovered.
The fire, which grew to 156 square miles (404 square kilometres), destroyed more than 6,700 buildings, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said Saturday. More than 50,000 people evacuated the area.
Officials say more than 3,000 firefighters are battling the blaze, which began Thursday in the hills near Paradise, about 180 miles (289 kilometres) northeast of San Francisco. Pacific Gas & Electric Company told state regulators that it experienced a problem on an electrical transmission line near the site of the blaze minutes before the fire broke out. The company said it later observed damage to a transmission tower on the line.
The utility said it will co-operate with any investigations, though a spokeswoman said Friday the information was preliminary and the cause of the fire has not been determined.
Two people were found dead as a pair of wildfires stretched from inland canyons to the Pacific in Southern California on Saturday, leaving people sifting through the remains of both mansions and modest homes for anything they had left.
The two bodies were found severely burned inside a car on a long residential driveway in Malibu, Los Angeles County sheriff’s Chief John Benedict said. The home is on a winding stretch of Mulholland Highway with steep panoramic views, where on Saturday the roadway was littered with rocks, a few large boulders and fallen power lines, some of them still on fire. Most of the surrounding structures were levelled.
Officials said 109 square miles (282 kilometres) had burned north and east of the city, including in Malibu, home to many Hollywood stars.
Officials were taking advantage of calm conditions to try to contain the blaze before winds pick up again on Sunday.
Just days after a gunman killed 12 people and himself at a country music bar in Thousand Oaks, California, many grieving residents were urged to evacuate as wildfires burning on both sides of the city shut down part of the main freeway to town.
Some evacuees sheltered at a teen centre that just a day earlier was where grieving family members had gathered to receive news on the fate of loved ones who had been in the Borderline Bar and Grill, where 28-year-old former Marine Ian David Long carried out an attack that shook a city that had been considered one of the safest in the nation.
“It’s like ‘welcome to hell,’ ” resident Cynthia Ball said of the back-to-back disasters.
Three-quarters of residents in the city of 130,000, about 40 miles (64 kilometres) from Los Angeles, were under evacuation orders — and that likely included people affected by the shooting, Thousand Oaks Mayor Andy Fox said.
Hollywood celebrities were forced to flee as a devastating Southern California wildfire tore through mansions in the coastal community of Malibu.
Actor Martin Sheen told Los Angeles Fox affiliate KTTV that the fire was the worst he has ever seen, and he expects that his house was destroyed.
The television station tracked down the “West Wing” actor after son Charlie Sheen tweeted Friday night that he had been unable to contact his parents. Martin Sheen gave a shoutout to his family to let them know he and his wife, Janet, were safe and planned to sleep in their car at the beach.
Alyssa Milano tweeted Saturday that she was waiting to hear of her home’s fate. On Friday she said she had gotten help to evacuate her horses and that her children were safe, but her house was “in jeopardy.”
“I’m so sorry and my heart is with each of those who are impacted by this awful disaster,” she tweeted Saturday.
Also left waiting was Caitlyn Jenner, whose hilltop home appeared intact when it was shot by a photographer for The Associated Press on Saturday morning. Jenner’s representative noted that the Olympic gold medallist wouldn’t know the extent of any damage to the home until she was allowed to return to it.
The entire coastal enclave of Malibu was ordered to flee, with Jenner’s former step-daughter Kim Kardashian West, Lady Gaga and Guillermo del Toro among the other celebrities forced to abandon their homes.
The Woolsey blaze also destroyed the home of “Dr. Strange” director Scott Derrickson and the historic Paramount Ranch where HBO’s “Westworld” and many other shows have been filmed.
Associated Press writers contributing to this story include Andrew Dalton in Los Angeles; Jonathan J. Cooper in Malibu; Lynn Elber in Los Angeles; Paul Elias and Gillian Flaccus in Paradise; Don Thompson in Chico; Olga R. Rodriguez and Sudhin Thanawala in San Francisco; and Tammy Webber in Chicago.