California wildfire toll matches deadliest ever with 29 victims

California, USA Published: Nov 12, 2018, 05:32 PM(IST)

A group of Cal Fire firefighters monitor ambers from a toppled wall while battling the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, US, November 9, 2018. Photograph:( Ruptly )

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The flames have sent 250,000 people fleeing their homes across the tinder-dry state and razed 6,400 homes in the town of Paradise, effectively wiping it off the map.

The death toll in a raging California wildfire has reached 29, matching the deadliest in the state's history as firefighters battling blazes at both ends of the state on Monday braced for strong winds.

The "Camp Fire" -- in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains north of Sacramento -- is the largest and most destructive of several infernos that have broken out.

The flames have sent 250,000 people fleeing their homes across the tinder-dry state and razed 6,400 homes in the town of Paradise, effectively wiping it off the map.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea announced the new death toll at a news conference Sunday, adding that all were found in Paradise area.

At least 31 people have died in fire zones in north and south California, where acrid smoke blanketed the sky for miles, the sun barely visible. 

On the ground, cars caught in the flames were reduced to scorched metal skeletons, while homes were left as smoldering piles of debris, with an occasional brick wall or chimney remaining.

Some 200 people remained unaccounted for in the Paradise area alone, officials said. Several fire-affected areas were left without cell phone service.

The fire matched the 1933 Griffith Park disaster in Los Angeles -- until now the single deadliest wildfire on record, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).

At the southern end of the state, the "Woolsey Fire" has destroyed mansions and mobile homes in the coastal celebrity redoubt of Malibu, where the death toll has been limited to two victims found in a vehicle on a private driveway.

The National Weather Service has issued a "Red Flag" alert for fire-affected Los Angeles and Ventura County.

The service warned of "EXTREMELY CRITICAL Fire Weather Conditions through Tuesday."

It said winds of up to 50 miles (80 kilometers) per hour were expected in the coastal region, and up to 60 mph (96 kph) in mountainous areas.

'The new abnormal' 

The "Camp Fire" has scorched 111,000 acres (45,000 hectares) and is 25 percent contained, Cal Fire said. So far, three of the more than 4,000 firefighters deployed have been injured.

Evacuation orders have been issued to more than a quarter of a million people across California.

While some Malibu-area residents were allowed to return home late Sunday, the entire city of Calabasas -- just northeast of Malibu -- came under evacuation orders.

"This is not the new normal, this is the new abnormal. And this new abnormal will continue, certainly in the next 10 to 15 to 20 years," California Governor Jerry Brown said Sunday.

"Unfortunately, the best science is telling us that the dryness, warmth, drought, all those things, they're going to intensify."

 'Dangerously wrong' 

President Donald Trump drew fierce criticism for an unsympathetic reaction to the devastation.

"There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor," Trump tweeted, threatening to withdraw federal support.

Brian Rice, the head of the California Professional Firefighters, slammed the tweet as "ill-informed, ill-timed and demeaning to those who are suffering as well as the men and women on the front lines."

He said the president's claim that forest policies were mismanaged "is dangerously wrong."

Celebrity aid for pets 

The "Woolsey Fire" engulfed parts of Thousand Oaks, where the community is still shell-shocked after a Marine Corps veteran shot dead 12 people in a country music bar on Wednesday.

The blaze has consumed around 85,500 acres, destroyed at least 177 buildings and was 15 percent contained, Cal Fire said.

Singer Miley Cyrus's home was one of the buildings destroyed in southern California. 

"Completely devestated (sic) by the fires affecting my community. I am one of the lucky ones. My animals and LOVE OF MY LIFE made it out safely & that's all that matters right now," she tweeted. 

"My house no longer stands but the memories shared with family & friends stand strong."

Many of the southern California area's residents own horses, and for the past days Twitter has been filled with messages of people seeking and offering help.

Actor James Woods, a rare political conservative in liberal Hollywood, has made new friends by using his Twitter account to help find missing people and getting help for pets, including horses.

"Please think about fostering #pets while evacuees are dealing with the crisis. Los Angeles #animal shelters are mostly filled, so follow my hashtags, and see if someone in need is someone you can help!" read one of his tweets.

The Ventura County Humane Society said it was "deeply humbled by a $100,000 donation from (actress) Sandra Bullock and family" to rescue and care for animals evacuated from the fires.

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