PARADISE, Calif., Nov 14 (Reuters) - National Guard troops were due to arrive on Wednesday to help search for more victims in the charred, ash-strewn ruins where the northern California town of Paradise stood, before it was erased in the deadliest, most destructive wildfire in state history.
The Guard contingent, about 100 military police trained to look for and identify human remains, will reinforce the coroner-led recovery teams, cadaver dogs and forensic anthropologists already scouring the ghostly landscape of a fire that has killed at least 48 people.
The grim, painstaking search is concentrated in what little is left of Paradise, a Sierra foothills town in Butte County, California, about 175 miles (280 km) north of San Francisco, that was overrun by flames and largely incinerated last Thursday.
The killer blaze, fueled by thick, drought-desiccated scrub and fanned by fierce winds, capped a catastrophic California wildfire season that experts largely attribute to prolonged dry spells they say are symptomatic of global climate change.
The Butte County disaster coincided with a flurry of blazes in Southern California, most notably the Woolsey Fire, which has killed two people, destroyed over 400 structures and displaced about 200,000 people in the mountains and foothills near the Malibu coast west of Los Angeles.
The origins of both the Camp and Woolsey fires were listed as under investigation. But two utility companies, Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric, reported to regulators they experienced problems with transmission lines or substations in areas around the time the blazes were reported to have started.
By late Tuesday, with the help of diminished winds and rising humidity levels, fire crews had managed to carve containment lines around more than a third of both fires, easing further the immediate threat to life and property.
U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and California Governor Jerry Brown were scheduled on Wednesday to pay a visit to the areas, which President Donald Trump declared a disaster areas, making federal emergency assistance more readily available.
After touring some of California’s earlier wildfire zones in August, Zinke blamed “gross mismanagement of forests” because of timber harvest restrictions that he said were supported by “environmental terrorist groups”.
While prospects for suppressing the flames grew more hopeful, authorities pressed on with the task of accounting for those listed as missing.
County Sheriff Kory Honea said he requested the Guard troops, along with “disaster mortuary” crew, portable military morgue teams and specialists from a private DNA laboratory to speed the detection and identification of additional remains.
“We want to cover as much ground as we can,” Honea said at a Tuesday evening news conference where he announced that the six latest sets of remains had been recovered in Paradise earlier in the day.
The fatality count of 48 already far exceeds the previous record for the greatest loss of life from a single wildfire in California history - 29 people killed by the Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles in 1933.
Honea said that in some cases victims were burned beyond recognition, or even beyond the use of fingerprint IDs. Dental records will be needed to positively identify some, but “dental records might not be available if the dentist office burned to the ground”, he said.
“We’re finding remains in various states,” he told reporters. “People have been badly burned. Some of them, I assume, have been consumed.”
He said it was possible that some remains might turn up only once residents with homes still intact are able to return. More than 50,000 remained under evacuation orders.
Honea had previously said 228 people were listed as missing. However, he said on Tuesday night those numbers were highly fluid and that his office planned to publish a new list of missing persons soon and would ask the public to help account for them.
He said it remained unclear how many individuals whose whereabouts were unknown had perished or fallen out of touch in chaotic evacuations.
Wind-driven flames roared through Paradise so swiftly that residents were forced to flee for their lives with little or no warning. Bodies of some victims were found in and around the burned-out wreckage of vehicles engulfed in the firestorm as evacuation traffic ground to a half in deadly knots of gridlock hours after the fire erupted.
By late Tuesday, the Camp Fire had blackened 130,000 acres (52,600 hectares) in all.
The Woolsey fire by comparison has scorched 96,000 acres (39,000 hectares) of chaparral-covered rolling hills and canyons spanning Ventura and Los Angeles counties, an area roughly the size of Denver.
On Tuesday, white-clad forensic teams fanned out to pick through the barren, fire-scorched lots in a town once home to 27,000 people.
On a residential street in Paradise lined with obliterated houses, a 10-member search crew wearing white protective suits and red helmets used a dog to scour the debris.
“Look for skulls, the big bones,” one forensics worker said to others as they used metal poles and their hands to sift through ruins. At a nearby community swimming pool, recovery workers stirred green, darkened waters with long poles to probe for bodies.
Additional reporting by Noel Randewich and Sharon Bernstein in Paradise and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Writing by Steve Gorman; editing by David Stamp