The number of people declared missing in one of California’s catastrophic wildfires has more than doubled to 631, as the struggle continues to contain one of the biggest blazes the US state has ever known.
The Camp Fire, which broke out a week ago in the drought-affected Sierra Foothills 280 kilometres north of San Francisco, has left at least 63 people dead. Another three people died in a fire in Southern California.
The revised official list of people unaccounted for, issued by the Butte County Sheriff’s Office, leapt from 297 – a figure given earlier on Thursday – to 631.
Sheriff Kory Honea said nearly 300 people initially reported as missing had been found alive, and the list would keep fluctuating as people were found safe or identified among the dead. At an evening news briefing he said the remains of seven more victims had been located since Wednesday.
The sheriff has asked relatives of the missing to submit DNA samples to help identify the dead. He said some of those unaccounted for many never be found.
The high number of dead and missing is attributed to the speed with which the flames, driven by high winds and facilitated by parched scrubland and trees, raced through the town of Paradise.
Most of the town – nearly 12,000 homes and buildings – has been destroyed, and an army of firefighters, many from other states, joined the struggle to contain and suppress the flames.
Those who survived the fires but lost homes have been moving in with friends or relatives, or staying in emergency shelters. Dozens of people have pitched tents or slept in cars outside a Walmart store in Paradise.
In Southern California, where there have been several smaller fires, the Wolsey Fire has been linked to at least three deaths and hundreds of destroyed buildings in the hills around Malibu, west of Los Angeles.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said on Thursday that a greater perimeter of both the state’s major fires had been contained.
Across the state, more than 9,000 firefighters are involved in the fight to contain the fires.
The White House has said Donald Trump will visit California on Saturday to meet people affected by the disaster.
Last weekend the US President blamed “gross mismanagement” of the forests for the fires, and threatened to withhold federal payments.
Trump’s comments, which came shortly after he Trump issued an emergency declaration to allow US government funds to be used to tackle three blazes, prompted an angry response from firefighters.
Some experts have called into question forest management methods. But scientists largely attribute the disastrous wildfire seasons California has experienced over the past couple of years, to prolonged drought symptomatic of climate change.