PARADISE, Calif. – Authorities moved to set up a rapid DNA-analysis system and bring in cadaver dogs, mobile morgues and more search teams in an intensified effort to find and identify victims of the deadliest wildfire in California history, an inferno that killed at least 42 people.
Five days after flames all but obliterated the town of Paradise, population 27,000, officials were unsure of the exact number of missing. But the death toll was almost certain to rise.
“I want to recover as many remains as we possibly can, as soon as we can. Because I know the toll it takes on loved ones,” Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said Monday night as he announced the discovery of 13 more sets of remains.
More than a dozen coroner search-and-recovery teams looked for the dead across the apocalyptic landscape that was once Paradise, while anxious relatives visited shelters and called police and hospitals in hopes of finding loved ones.
Lisa Jordan drove 600 miles (1,000 kilometres) from Yakima, Washington, to search for her uncle, Nick Clark, and his wife, Anne, who lived in Paradise. Anne Clark has multiple sclerosis and cannot walk. Jordan said no one seemed to know whether they were able to get out or whether their house was still standing.
“I’m staying hopeful,” she said. “Until the final word comes, you keep fighting against it.”
Authorities said they were bringing in two mobile morgue units from the military, requesting an additional 150 search-and-rescue personnel, and seeking the setup of a rapid DNA system to speed the analysis of remains.
Chaplains accompanied some coroner search teams that visited dozens of addresses belonging to people reported missing. No cars in the driveway was a considered a good sign, one car a little more ominous and multiple burned-out vehicles more reason for worry.
State officials said the cause of the inferno was under investigation.
But a landowner near where the blaze began, Betsy Ann Cowley, said Pacific Gas & Electric Co. notified her the day before the fire that crews needed to come onto her property because the utility’s power lines were sparking. PG&E had no comment on the email.
At the other end of the state, in Southern California, firefighters continued making progress against a blaze that killed two people in star-studded Malibu and destroyed over 400 structures.
Fire crews lit backfires and extended containment lines overnight. They expected to have the more than 146-square-mile (378-square-kilometre) fire fully contained by Thursday.
The 42 dead in Northern California surpassed the deadliest single fire on record, a 1933 blaze in Griffith Park in Los Angeles. A series of wildfires in Northern California’s wine country last fall killed 44 people and destroyed more than 5,000 homes.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Sudhin Thanawala, Janie Har, Jocelyn Gecker and Daisy Nguyen in San Francisco and Andrew Selsky in Salem, Oregon.