By Terray Sylvester
PARADISE, Calif. (Reuters) - Firefighting crews made progress against the deadliest wildfire in California history on Thursday amid concerns that the death toll of 56 would rise as search teams work their way through the burned-out town of Paradise in the state's north.
A week after the Camp Fire roared through Paradise, more than 9,000 personnel from many U.S. states are fighting the blaze, as well as the Woolsey Fire hundreds of miles to the south.
Authorities attributed the high number of casualties to the staggering speed with which the wind-driven flames incinerated Paradise. Nearly 8,700 homes were destroyed and 15,500 buildings threatened, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said on Thursday.
Cal Fire said that 40 percent of the Camp Fire had been contained, up from 35 percent, even as the blaze grew 2,000 acres to 140,000 acres (57,000 hectares).
U.S. National Guard troops are in Paradise, a town of about 27,000 in the Sierra foothills about 175 miles (280 km) north of San Francisco, looking for remains of victims. One hundred thirty people, most over the age of 65, were still listed as missing.
Authorities fear that in the crush to flee the fast-approaching flames, some elderly residents may have been left behind. At least 22 cadaver dogs are part of the search.
Those who survived the flames but lost their homes were adapting to a refugee lifestyle, with many finding a haven at a still-open Walmart in Paradise. A section of the store's parking lot was roped off for use as a distribution centre for clothes, food and coffee, while people who fled their homes set up dozens of tents in an adjacent field or slept in their cars in the parking lot. Portable toilets were brought in.
Evacuees milling in the parking lot faced morning temperatures that dropped into the mid-30s and many wore breathing masks for protection from lingering smoke.
Nicole and Eric Montague, along with their 16-year-old daughter, went to the Walmart parking lot for free food but have been living with extended family in Chico, about 12 miles away, in a one-bedroom apartment filled with 15 people and nine dogs.
"WE DIDN'T HAVE TIME"
They said they were aware a fire was coming toward Paradise last week but were stunned by how quickly it arrived.
"We didn’t have any time to react," Eric said. "The news didn’t even know the fire was coming. It just happened so quick."
Nicole said she decided to flee once her home's mailbox caught fire and neighbours' propane tanks began exploding. With approaching flames and immovable traffic, her evacuation with her daughter was so harrowing that she called Eric to say they were going to die.
"I called him and said, 'Honey, I'm not going to make it, I love you,'" Nicole said.
Paradise's ghostly expanse of empty lots covered in ash and strewn with twisted wreckage and debris made a strong impression on Governor Jerry Brown, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and other officials who toured the devastation on Wednesday and were due to visit the scene of the Woolsey Fire on Thursday.
Paradise's police department stepped up patrols after arresting three people on charges of looting. The department is relying on equipment from other police departments and is running off a generator, Sergeant Steve Bertagna told KRCR TV.
Thirteen of the department's 30 officers have lost their homes, KRCR TV said.
The blaze, fuelled by thick, drought-desiccated scrub, has capped two back-to-back catastrophic wildfire seasons in California that scientists largely ascribe to prolonged drought that is symptomatic of climate change.
The high winds have eased, Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott told reporters late on Wednesday, but vegetation around the Camp Fire remained critically dry and conditions were dangerous.
The Butte County disaster coincided with blazes in Southern California, including the Woolsey Fire, which has killed at least two people, destroyed more than 500 structures and at its height displaced 200,000 people west of Los Angeles.
Cal Fire said the Woolsey Fire was about 57 percent contained on Thursday, up from 52 percent, and some mandatory evacuation orders in Ventura County were lifted. Crews battling the fire were hoping for a help from the weather on Thursday with light onshore winds expected to bring slightly cooler temperatures and higher humidity levels.
The Camp Fire also stands as one of the deadliest U.S. wildfires since the 19th century. More than 80 people perished in the Big Burn firestorm that swept the northern Rockies in August 1910, consuming 3 million acres.
(Additional reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee, Jonathan Allen in New York; Writing by Nick Carey and Bill Trott; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Steve Orlofsky)