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California wildfires: Death toll reaches grim milestone

A burned out vehicle sits in the driveway of a Paradise home in Butte County, California, 11 November 2018

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EPA

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The town of Paradise has been all but destroyed by the wildfires

The death toll in wildfires sweeping California has risen to 31, with more than 200 people still unaccounted for, officials have said.

Six more people were confirmed killed in the Camp Fire in the north of the state, taking the toll there to 29.

That fire now equals the deadliest on record in California – the 1933 Griffith Park disaster in Los Angeles.

In the south, the Woolsey Fire has claimed two lives as it damaged beach resorts including Malibu.

An estimated 250,000 people have been forced to flee their homes to avoid three major blazes in the state.

With strengthening winds threatening to spread the flames, California Governor Jerry Brown has urged President Donald Trump to declare a major disaster, a move that would harness more federal emergency funds.

The appeal came a day after Mr Trump threatened to cut funding for California, blaming the fires on poor forest management.

What is the latest on the Camp Fire?

Emergency teams have been sifting through the remains of more than 6,700 homes and businesses burned down in the town of Paradise.

The town and surrounding area bore the brunt of the inferno, which started in nearby forest on Thursday.

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Reuters

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Residents of Paradise are in shock from the scale of the destruction

Media captionFleeing through flames: ‘I’m so scared right now… so terrified’

At a news conference late on Sunday, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said the bodies of five people had been found in their burned-out homes and a sixth was found inside a vehicle. He said that more than 200 people were still unaccounted for.

The mayor of Paradise, Jody Jones, gave the BBC an update on the situation in the town.

“Most of the residential [area] is gone. I would say 90%,” she said. “I had an opportunity to go up there and take a look for myself. Just about everyone I know lost their home.”

The fire is the most destructive in the state’s history and the joint deadliest.

It has burned more than 109,000 acres (44,000 hectares) and is nearly 25% contained, fire officials said.

What about the Woolsey Fire?

The blaze started on Thursday near Thousand Oaks, about 40 miles (64km) north-west of central Los Angeles.

By Sunday it had consumed 83,000 acres and destroyed at least 177 buildings, officials said. It is only 10% contained. The smaller Hill Fire, nearby, has scorched 4,530 acres and is 75% contained.

Some looting was reported in the southern fire area over the weekend and police said arrests had been made.

Luxury homes in Malibu and other beach communities are among properties that have fallen victim to the flames.

Hollywood actor Gerard Butler shared a picture of a charred house on Twitter, writing: “Returned to my house in Malibu after evacuating. Heartbreaking time across California.” He thanked firefighters for their “courage, spirit and sacrifice”.

Paramount Ranch in Agoura Hills, where the HBO series Westworld is filmed, was also destroyed.

On Saturday, firefighters used a respite from strong winds to drop fire retardant in a bid to strengthen firebreaks.

But officials warned against complacency, with winds of up to 70mph (112km/h) expected over the coming days. They said fires could spread quickly and unexpectedly.

“Winds are already blowing. They are going to blow for the next three days. Your house can be rebuilt but you can’t bring your life back,” said Los Angeles County fire chief Daryl Osby.

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Reuters

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Fire retardant is dropped on to the Woolsey Fire near Malibu

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Getty Images

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The Woolsey Fire is only 10% contained

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AFP

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Luxury beachfront homes in Malibu have been claimed by the fire

Meteorologist David Gomberg told the Los Angeles Times newspaper that fire tornadoes were possible.

What do the politicians say?

Governor Brown’s request to President Trump was aimed at bolstering the emergency response to what he called the “catastrophic” nature of the wildfires.

“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’s letter said.

Mr Trump’s response to the fires has been criticised as unsympathetic and ill-informed.

On Sunday, during a trip to France, he tweeted: “With proper Forest Management, we can stop the devastation constantly going on in California. Get Smart!”

He has previously blamed Californian officials for wildfires and threatened to withhold federal funding.

In a tweet on Saturday, he accused state authorities of “gross mismanagement” of forests.

Mr Brown’s spokesman, Evan Westrub, called Mr Trump’s comments “inane and uninformed”.

Why are the fires so bad?

Historically, California’s “wildfire season” started in summer and ran into early autumn. But experts have warned that the risk is becoming year-round.

The current fires are being blamed on a combination of climate change and transient weather conditions.

Low humidity, warm Santa Ana winds, and dry ground after a rain-free month have produced prime fire-spreading conditions.

The sheer number of people in California also helps explain the blazes’ deadliness. The state’s population stands at 40 million, almost double what it was in the 1970s, and the number living close to at-risk forest areas is rising.

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Getty Images

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Population density has been growing in areas that used to be sparsely inhabited

And then there’s climate change. Recent years have produced record-breaking temperatures, earlier springs, and less reliable rainfall.

Citing the role of a warming climate, Governor Brown declared: “This is not the new normal, this is the new abnormal. The chickens are coming home to roost, this is real here.”

Musician Neil Young made the same link, writing on his website: “I have lost my home before to a California wildfire, now another.”

“We are vulnerable because of climate change; the extreme weather events and our extended drought is part of it.”


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California wildfires: Death toll reaches grim milestone

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