PARADISE, Calif. (AP) — With hearses standing by, crews stepped up the search for bodies in the smoking ruins of Paradise — and relatives desperately looked for more than 100 missing loved ones — as wildfires raged Sunday on both ends of the state.
The statewide death toll stood at 25 and appeared certain to rise.
At least five search teams were working in Paradise — a town of 27,000 that was largely incinerated on Thursday — and in surrounding Northern California communities. Authorities called in a mobile DNA lab and anthropologists to help identify victims of the most destructive wildfire in California history.
By early afternoon, one of the two black hearses stationed in Paradise had picked up another set of remains.
People looking for friends or relatives called evacuation centers, hospitals, police and the coroner’s office.
Sol Bechtold drove from shelter to shelter looking for his mother, Joanne Caddy, a 75-year-old widow whose house burned down along with the rest of her neighborhood in Magalia, just north of Paradise. She lived alone and did not drive.
Bechtold posted a flyer on social media, pinned it to bulletin boards at shelters and showed her picture around to evacuees, asking if anyone recognized her. He ran across a few of Caddy’s neighbors, but they hadn’t seen her.
As he drove through the smoke and haze to yet another shelter, he said, “I’m also under a dark emotional cloud. Your mother’s somewhere and you don’t know where she’s at. You don’t know if she’s safe.”
He added: “I’ve got to stay positive. She’s a strong, smart woman.”
Officials and relatives held out hope that many of those unaccounted for were safe and simply had no cellphones or other ways to contact loved ones. The sheriff’s office in the stricken northern county set up a missing-persons call center to help connect people.
More than 8,000 firefighters in all battled three large wildfires burning across nearly 400 square miles in Northern and Southern California, with out-of-state crews continuing to arrive and gusty, blowtorch winds starting up again.
The worst of the blazes was in Northern California, where the number of people killed in that fire alone, at least 23, made it the third-deadliest on record in the state. Two people were also found dead in a wildfire in Southern California, where flames tore through Malibu mansions and working-class Los Angeles suburbs alike.
The two severely burned bodies were discovered in a driveway in celebrity-studded Malibu, where residents forced from their homes included Lady Gaga, Kim Kardashian West and Martin Sheen. Actor Gerard Butler said on Instagram that his Malibu home was “half-gone,” and a publicist for Camille Grammer Meyer said the “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star lost her home in the seaside enclave.
Flames also besieged Thousand Oaks, the Southern California city in mourning over the massacre of 12 people in a shooting rampage at a country music bar Wednesday night.
In Northern California, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said the county consulted anthropologists from California State University at Chico because, in some cases, investigators have been able to recover only bones and bone fragments.
The devastation was so complete in some neighborhoods that “it’s very difficult to determine whether or not there may be human remains there,” Honea said.
Authorities were also bringing in a DNA lab and encouraged people with missing relatives to submit samples to aid in identifying the dead after the blaze destroyed more than 6,700 buildings, nearly all of them homes.
Firefighters gained modest ground overnight against the blaze, which grew slightly to 170 square miles from the day before but was 25 percent contained, up from 20 percent, according to the state fire agency, Cal Fire.
But Cal Fire spokesman Bill Murphy warned that gusty winds predicted into Monday morning could spark “explosive fire behavior.”