SAN FRANCISCO • More than 200 people were missing as of early yesterday in California's deadliest and most destructive blaze on record, one of two fires raging in the state which have killed at least 31 people and forced more than a quarter of a million evacuations.
The so-called Camp fire about 64km north-west of Sacramento destroyed more than 6,700 homes and businesses in the town of Paradise, more structures torched than by any other wildfire recorded in California.
The fire had burned more than 44,920ha and was 25 per cent contained by late Sunday, officials said. Its death toll of 29 now equals that of the Griffith Park fire in 1933, the deadliest wildfire on record in California. At least 228 people were still missing, according to Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea.
In southern California, the Woolsey fire has scorched at least 34,600ha and destroyed 177 structures. The blaze was only 15 per cent contained. At least two people have died in that fire, according to officials from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire.
The fires could cost the state, insurers and home owners at least US$19 billion (S$26 billion) in damages. They have already forced the authorities to issue evacuation orders for a quarter of a million people in Ventura and Los Angeles counties and beachside communities, including the Malibu colony.
Cal Fire said it could take five more days before firefighters put out Woolsey, and the rest of the month to extinguish the Camp fire.
Hot, dry winds were expected to whip up the fires burning in both tinder-dry southern and northern California until today, officials said.
Residents are being urged to heed evacuation orders.
"Winds are already blowing," Los Angeles County Fire Department chief Daryl Osby said on Sunday. "They are going to blow for the next three days. Your house can be rebuilt but you can't bring your life back."
Governor Jerry Brown asked US President Donald Trump to declare a major disaster to bolster the emergency response and help residents recover.
The request for emergency funding to support housing, crisis management and infrastructure recovery efforts came a day after Mr Trump threatened to withhold federal payments to California.
"We're putting everything we've got into the fight against these fires, and this request ensures communities on the front lines get additional federal aid," Mr Brown said in a written statement.
Mr Trump has criticised the California government in tweets this weekend, blaming poor forest management for the infernos.
"Statewide, we are in a climate change and it is going to be here for the foreseeable future," said Mr Osby. "Six out of the last seven years, we've been in a drought." About 8,000 local, state and federal firefighters are on the scene.
The authorities are investigating electrical equipment as one of several possible causes of the Camp blaze, Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean said.
Almost half of California faces an elevated risk for fires, with some 15.5 million people living in critical areas that include Los Angeles and San Jose, according to Mr Brian Squitieri, a fire-weather forecaster at the US Climate Prediction Centre in Norman, Oklahoma.
Meanwhile, celebrities at the People's Choice Awards on Sunday night in Santa Monica, California, asked for prayers and donations for residents and first responders.
Reality television star Kim Kardashian said: "It's been a really rough week in our home in Calabasas, Hidden Hills, and our neighbours in Thousand Oaks and Malibu."
And actor Melissa McCarthy has called for people to donate to the Los Angeles Fire Department Foundation.