PARADISE, United States (AFP) - Family members and survivors on Friday (Nov 16) sought news of the 630 people considered missing after the deadliest wildfire in California history reduced much of the town of Paradise to ash and charred rubble, and killed 63.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, said the blaze, named the Camp Fire, was now 45 per cent contained, up from 35 per cent on Thursday, even though it had grown slightly to 57,000 hectares.
With nearly 12,000 homes and buildings burned, refugees from the fire have taken up residence in tents or their vehicles and filled evacuation centres to overflowing. Search teams, meanwhile, are combing through burned-out areas looking for bodies - or anything else that might carry human DNA for identification purposes.
Cal Fire said the Camp Fire death toll held at 63 overnight, but Miranda Bowersox, spokeswoman for the Butte County Sheriff's office, warned the number of missing people would fluctuate.
"The overall number will go down but in the short term we expect will see new reports of people missing," she said.
In some cases, those unaccounted for have likely survived but not yet notified family or authorities that they are alive, or relatives may not yet have reported people missing. Poor cellphone coverage after the fire has also made communications difficult.
Last weekend, the Butte County Sheriff's office initially put the total of missing people at 228, many of whom have now been accounted for. But as fresh reports from relatives caused the list to rise to 130 from 103 late on Wednesday, 297 by Thursday morning and 630 as of Thursday night.
The fire - which roared through Paradise, a town of 27,000 people in the Sierra foothills 280km north of San Francisco, on Nov 8 - is among the deadliest to have hit the United States over the last century.
Authorities attribute the death toll partly to the speed with which flames raced through the town, driven by wind and fueled by desiccated scrub and trees.
Weather conditions now are helping the firefighting effort, Nick Pimlott, a Cal Fire engineer, told KRCR TV. He said the winds had died down, allowing crews around Lake Oroville to the south-east of Paradise to construct fresh lines to contain the fire.
Many on the missing list are over the age of 65. Local officials and realtors have long sold Paradise as an ideal place to retire.
Brandon DuVall of Seattle said he last communicated with his retired father, Robert DuVall, in July after his father had bought a new pickup and camper. He received a call earlier this week that his father's remains might have been found and now will go to California to provide a DNA sample.
Relatives of retired US Navy veteran David Marbury, 66, are waiting to hear from him. No one has managed to speak with him since the wildfire began.
On Thursday, Marbury's landlord confirmed to relatives that his duplex in Paradise had burned down. Sheriff's officials told them his car was still in the garage.
"I really hope he's still alive and we're going to be able to see him," Marbury's niece Sadia Quint, 30, told Reuters by phone. "We just hope that he's still with us."
'WHY AM I HERE?'
Some in Paradise were experiencing survivors' guilt. "You're like, 'Why am I here?'" Sam Walker, a pastor at the First Baptist Church of Paradise, told WBUR radio. "'Why is my family all here? Why are our churches still standing?' I don't know. My house is gone, like so many others."
Thousands of additional structures remain threatened as firefighters, many from distant states, try to contain and suppress the flames.
There have been other smaller blazes in Southern California, including the Woolsey Fire, which is linked to three fatalities and has destroyed at least 500 structures near the Malibu coast west of Los Angeles. It was 57 per cent contained.
Scientists say two seasons of devastating wildfires in California are attributable to drought that is symptomatic of climate change.
Republican US President Donald Trump is due to visit the fire zones on Saturday to meet displaced residents. Critics say Trump politicised the fires by blaming them, without supporting evidence, on bad forest mismanagement by California, a largely Democratic state. Trump threatened to withhold federal assistance.
Smoke from the Camp Fire has spread broadly. Public schools in Sacramento 150km to the south, and as far away as San Francisco and Oakland, cancelled classes for Friday due to poor air quality.
Some of Paradise's older residents who had lost their homes were concerned about where they would live.
"I'm just very hopeful I can work something out for the future," Norris Godsey, 82, told the San Francisco Chronicle at a church evacuation centre in Chico. "If that's not possible, I don't know what I'll do."