By Steve Gorman
(Reuters) – Two days after authorities in Northern California ended their search for human remains from the deadliest wildfire in state history, the number of people listed as missing was reduced on Friday to fewer than 50, down from the nearly 200 last tallied.
The confirmed death toll from the Camp Fire stood unchanged from the past few days at 88, but the newly revised roster of people still unaccounted for came as welcome news three weeks after flames ravaged the Sierra foothills town of Paradise.
At a news conference on Wednesday night, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said search and recovery teams had finished combing through the ruins of approximately 18,000 homes and other buildings incinerated by the blaze.
The missing-persons list then consisted of 196 names, though Honea said he was hopeful that many individuals would eventually turn up alive as they realized that loved ones were looking for them.
By Friday night, the whereabouts of most had, indeed, been determined, and the list was winnowed down again to just 49 names, the sheriff’s office said.
That total was by far the smallest to date, greatly diminishing the number of people who might potentially be declared missing and presumed dead.
Honea has acknowledged the possibility that some who perished in the blaze might never be found, but he also has refused to speculate on how many such cases might exist.
The number of missing has fluctuated widely since the fire erupted on Nov. 8, briefly exceeding 1,200 names about two weeks ago.
With the fire now reduced to embers, the National Weather Service issued flash-flood warnings on Thursday and Friday for the burn zone as showers and thunderstorms heightened the risk of heavy runoff in areas stripped of vegetation by the fire.
The bulk of the devastation occurred in and around the hamlet of Paradise, a town once home to almost 27,000 people, many of them retirees, about 175 miles (280 km) north of San Francisco.
The current death toll already ranks as the greatest loss of life on record from a California wildfire and the most from a wildfire anywhere in the United States, dating back to Minnesota’s 1918 Cloquet Fire, which killed as many as 1,000 people.
Authorities attribute the Camp Fire’s high casualty count in large part to the tremendous speed with which flames raced through Paradise with little warning, driven by howling winds and fuelled by drought-desiccated scrub and trees.
Remains of many victims were found in the ashen rubble of homes, others inside or near the burned-out wreckage of vehicles.
The cause of the blaze remained under investigation. But electric utility PG&E Corp reported equipment problems near the origin of the fire around the time it began.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; editing by Louise Heavens)