Most of those unaccounted for are from the Butte County town of Paradise, in northern California, which was virtually erased from the map by the so-called “Camp Fire” blaze that erupted last week.
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea told journalists Wednesday evening that 461 search and rescue personnel and 22 cadaver dogs were involved in the effort to locate those missing and DNA testing was being expedited to identify the victims.
“Beginning Thursday, anyone who believes a family member perished can provide a DNA sample” to the sheriff’s office, Honea said.
Paradise, a town of around 26,000 in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, was popular with retirees and many of those reported missing by the sheriff’s office are elderly — in their 70s, 80s and 90s.
Virtually every home in Paradise, located 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of the state capital Sacramento, was destroyed by the fast-moving fire fueled by high winds.
At least 59 deaths have been reported so far from the devastating wildfires and body recovery teams were going house-to-house with cadaver dogs in Paradise on Wednesday.
“We are in the midst of a catastrophe,” Governor Jerry Brown told a press conference. “The fire was unprecedented, overwhelming, so a lot of people got caught.”
Brock Long, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said Paradise was looking at a “total rebuild” with many homes, businesses and infrastructure destroyed.
“This is going to be a very long and frustrating event for the citizens of Paradise,” Long said. “We’re going to have to find a new normal.”
“You’re not going to be able to rebuild Paradise the way it was.”
An AFP reporter in Paradise on Wednesday saw crews removing trees, repairing fences along roads and towing away cars.
Authorities said livestock owners were being allowed in to restricted areas for brief periods to feed the animals but it was unclear when residents would be allowed back in.
Tales of courage, survival
Fifty-six deaths have been reported from the “Camp Fire,” mostly in Paradise, while three people have died in the “Woolsey Fire.”
Honea said that of the 56 human remains found in his county, 47 had been identified.
While the cause of the “Camp Fire” is still under investigation, a lawsuit has been filed against the local power company, PG&E, by fire victims claiming negligence by the utility.
The complaint alleged that the fire began on November 8 when a high voltage transmission line failed, igniting a vegetation fire.
As thousands of firefighters fought the fires, incredible tales have emerged of courage and survival.
A man who asked to be identified by only his first name, Scott, told the San Francisco Chronicle that when the “Camp Fire” surrounded his home in Concow in Butte County he and his family plunged into a reservoir along with a 90-year-old neighbor, Bruno.
“Bruno was saying, ‘Just leave me. I can’t do this,’” Scott, 51, told the newspaper. “I said, ‘Bruno, we’re not going to leave you. And I’m not going to burn, so you better hurry.’”
They remained in the cold water as flames licked the shore and made their way to a small island in the reservoir after finding a pair of rowboats.
‘I was terrified’
Allyn Pierce, a nurse in Paradise, told The New York Times and CNN how his life was saved by a bulldozer driver as he fled the town in his pickup truck along with other residents on Thursday.
Pierce said cars were catching fire around him and he dictated a goodbye message to his family, expecting his vehicle to catch fire next.
“I stayed calm but I was terrified,” Pierce said.
“Then all of a sudden this bulldozer comes out of nowhere and knocks this burning truck out of the way,” he said.
Instead of fleeing to safety, however, Pierce turned around and went back to the Adventist Health Feather River Hospital, where he works as an intensive care nurse, and helped evacuate patients to the hospital’s helipad.
Pierce displayed pictures of his Toyota pickup truck which he said was still working despite lights which had melted and a rear passenger door which had been welded shut by the heat from the fire.
The “Camp Fire” has ravaged 135,000 acres (54,632 hectares) of land and is 35 percent contained, according to Cal Fire.
It has destroyed some 7,600 homes and 260 commercial properties. Battling the blaze are more than 5,600 fire personnel, some from as far away as Washington state and Texas.
The “Woolsey Fire” has razed 97,620 acres (39,505 hectares) and has been 47 percent contained.
Cal Fire said more than 3,500 fire personnel were battling the “Woolsey Fire,” which has destroyed the Malibu homes of several celebrities including Miley Cyrus, Neil Young, Robin Thicke, Shannen Doherty and Gerard Butler.