Authorities called in a mobile DNA lab and anthropologists to help identify the dead as the search went on for victims of the most destructive wildfire in California history. The death toll stood at 23 Sunday and appeared likely to climb.
With the town of Paradise, population 27,000, reduced to a smoking ruin and the fire still raging in surrounding communities, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said the Northern California county was bringing in a fifth search and recovery team.
An anthropology team from California State University at Chico was also assisting, because in some cases “the only remains we are able to find are bones or bone fragments.”
“This weighs heavy on all of us,” Honea said.
The department compiled a list of 110 people unaccounted for, but officials held out hope that many were safe but had no cellphones or some other way to contact loved ones.
Honea said the agency was also bringing in a DNA lab and encouraged people with missing relatives to submit samples to aid in identifying the dead.
The death toll made the Camp Fire the third-deadliest on record in the state. The blaze has burned 164 square miles (425 square kilometers) and has cost at least $8.1 million to fight so far, said Steve Kaufmann, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
It destroyed more than 6,700 buildings, nearly all of them homes. Wind gusts up to 50 mph were expected through Monday, conditions similar to when the fire started Thursday and quickly overtook Paradise.
Two people were also found dead in a wildfire in Southern California , bringing the number of fatalities statewide to 25. Fires tore through Malibu mansions and homes in working-class Los Angeles suburbs.
More than 200,000 people in all were forced from their homes across the state, officials said. Among them were some of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
Drought, warmer weather attributed to climate change and home construction deeper into forests have led to more destructive wildfire seasons in California that have been starting earlier and lasting longer.
In Paradise, a town founded in the 1800s, residents who stayed behind to try to save their properties or who managed to return despite an evacuation order found incinerated cars and homes.
Wearing masks because the air was still heavy with smoke, people sidestepped metal that had melted off of cars or Jet-Skis as they surveyed their ravaged neighborhoods. Some cried when they saw nothing was left.
Jan MacGregor, 81, got back to his small two-bedroom home in Paradise with the help of his firefighter grandson. He found his home leveled — a large metal safe and pipes from his septic system the only recognizable traces. The safe was punctured with bullet holes from guns inside that went off in the scorching heat.
He lived in Paradise for nearly 80 years, moving there in 1939, when the town had just 3,000 people and was nicknamed Poverty Ridge.
“We knew Paradise was a prime target for forest fire over the years,” he said. “We’ve had ’em come right up to the city limits — oh, yeah — but nothing like this.”
MacGregor said he probably would not rebuild: “I have nothing here to go back to.”
Some homes and other buildings in Paradise were still burning, and fire crews worked to put out the blazes.