PARADISE (Reuters) – The number of people missing after California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire jumped on Saturday to 1,276, despite authorities locating hundreds of people who scattered when the Camp Fire tore through the mountain town of Paradise.
Forensic recovery teams sifting through the charred wreckage recovered the remains of five more victims, bringing the death toll to at least 76, authorities said. Sixty-three of them have been tentatively identified, pending DNA confirmation.
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said much of the increase in the number of missing was due to his office’s efforts to comb through a backlog of emergency calls that came in during the first hours of the fire on Nov. 8.
He said officials were sifting through the list of missing persons for duplications and people who fled. Some 380 people had been located and taken off the list since Friday, he said.
“A lot of progress is being made with regard to that, but this is still raw data,” Mr Honea told a news conference.
The sheriff spoke after US President Donald Trump visited Paradise, the small community that was home to nearly 27,000 people in the Sierra foothills, 175 miles (280 km) north of San Francisco, before being all but consumed by the blaze.
“Nobody could have thought this would ever happen,” Mr Trump told reporters amid the charred wreckage of the town’s Skyway Villa Mobile Home and RV Park.
“This is very sad to see. As far as the lives are concerned, nobody knows quite yet,” Mr Trump said. “Right now we want to take care of the people who have been so badly hurt.”
California Governor Jerry Brown said the federal government was doing what it needed to do, including supporting first responders and helping with clean-up and search for victims.
The disaster already ranks among the deadliest US wildfires since the turn of the last century. Eighty-seven people perished in the Big Burn firestorm that swept the Northern Rockies in August 1910. Minnesota’s Cloquet Fire in October 1918 killed 450 people.
Authorities attribute the high death toll from the blaze – dubbed “Camp Fire” – partly to the speed with which flames raced through the town with little warning, driven by howling winds and fueled by drought-desiccated scrub and trees.
More than a week later, firefighters have managed to carve containment lines around 55 percent of the blaze’s perimeter.
With more than 12,700 homes and other structures up in smoke, many refugees have taken up temporary residence with friends and family, while others have pitched tents or were living out of their vehicles.