Troops sift through ruins as California wildfire death toll rises to 63

Click to play video: 'Paradise lost: What’s left of a California town' Paradise lost: What’s left of a California town
WATCH ABOVE: Photographer Terray Sylvester explains what's left of Paradise, CA one week into the state's deadliest and most destructive blaze in history – Nov 15, 2018

UPDATE: 6:30 p.m. — the death toll in the Northern California wildfire has grown to 63, while the number of people unaccounted for has grown to 631, according to NBC News.

U.S. National Guard troops fanned out to scour the ruins of the devastated town of Paradise on Thursday for remains of victims as 631 people were listed as missing in California’s deadliest wildfire on record, whose death toll has risen to 63.

The “Camp Fire” blaze last Thursday incinerated the Sierra foothills town, once home to 27,000 people. Most of the missing in and around Paradise, which lies about 175 miles (280 km) north of San Francisco, are aged over 65.

Authorities fear that in the crush to flee the fast-approaching flames, some elderly residents may have been left behind.

READ MORE: What can be done to avoid disastrous wildfires in California?

The surface area of the fire had grown to 138,000 acres (56,000 hectares) by late Wednesday evening, even as diminished winds and rising humidity helped firefighters shore up containment lines around more than a third of the perimeter.

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The National Guard contingent, 50 military police officers, has joined dozens of search-and-recovery workers and at least 22 cadaver dogs.

More than 9,000 firefighters and other personnel from many U.S. states are fighting the Camp Fire and the “Woolsey Fire” hundreds of miles to the south.

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.

Given the scale of the destruction in Paradise, some residents are weighing whether they can ever return.

“At this point, I’m taking it day-to-day,” Jeff Hill, who has been staying with relatives in nearby Chico since his home burned down, told NBC News. “There are no stores left, no restaurants, nothing.”

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WATCH BELOW: Officials confirm 130 people are ‘unaccounted’ for as firefighting efforts continue

Click to play video: 'Camp fire: officials confirm death toll now stands at 56' Camp fire: officials confirm death toll now stands at 56
Camp fire: officials confirm death toll now stands at 56 – Nov 14, 2018

“It’s not even habitable,” he added.

At an evacuation center south of Paradise in Oroville that is so full that some people are sleeping in cars or tents, Nanette Benson, said her future is uncertain.

READ MORE: Canadians affected by destructive California wildfires speak out

“We don’t know where the hell we’re going to go,” she told KRCR TV.

Paradise’s police department has stepped up patrols of the remains of the town after arresting three people on chargers of looting. Then department is reliant on equipment from other police departments and is running off a generator, Sergeant Steve Bertagna told KRCR TV.

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Thirteen of the department’s 30 officers have lost their homes, KRCR TV said.


The blaze, fueled by thick, drought-desiccated scrub, has capped two back-to-back catastrophic wildfire seasons in California that scientists largely attribute to prolonged drought that is symptomatic of climate change.

Authorities attributed the high number of casualties to the staggering speed with which the fire struck Paradise. Wind-driven flames roared through town so swiftly that residents were forced to flee for their lives.

Although the high winds that fueled the fires have eased, Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), told reporters late Wednesday that vegetation around the Camp Fire remained “critically dry.”

“We still have conditions that could produce new and damaging fires,” he said. “We are not letting out eye off this ball at all.”

Lawyers for some wildfire victims claimed in a lawsuit filed this week that lax equipment maintenance by an electric utility caused the fire, which officially remains under investigation.

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The Butte County disaster coincided with blazes in Southern California, especially the Woolsey Fire, which has killed at least two people, destroyed more than 500 structures and displaced 200,000 people west of Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said the body of a possible third victim was found. Cal Fire officials said that blaze was 52 percent contained as of Wednesday night.

The remains of eight more fire victims were found on Wednesday, raising the official number of fatalities to 56, nearly double the previous record from a single wildfire in California – 29 people killed by the Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles in 1933.

The Camp Fire also stands as one of the deadliest U.S. wildfires since the turn of the last century. More than 80 people perished in the Big Burn firestorm that swept the northern Rockies in August 1910, consuming 3 million acres.

“When I say downtown I mean Paradise,” said Pohmagevich, who opted to stay in Magalia even as fire closed in.Pohmagevich, an 18-year Magalia resident who works at Timber Ridge Real Estate and lives just up the road from many burned homes, said he stayed to protect his employer’s property from looters and to prepare some cabins and mobile homes so business tenants can live if they come back.
“If this town does recover, it’s going to take many, many years,” he said.
A week after the deadly Camp Fire struck, police teams drive around Magalia searching for those still in their homes, checking if they need any food and water. Crews from Pacific Gas & Electric are also in the area. With the death toll at 56, it is the deadliest wildfire in a century. There were also three fatalities from separate blazes in Southern California.WATCH BELOW: California wildfire victims file lawsuit against gas and electric company over blaze’s origin
Click to play video: 'California wildfires: Victims file lawsuit against gas and electric company for fires' California wildfires: Victims file lawsuit against gas and electric company for fires
California wildfires: Victims file lawsuit against gas and electric company for fires – Nov 14, 2018
As officials raised the loss of homes to nearly 8,800 Wednesday, Sheriff Kory Honea said the task of recovering remains had become so vast that his office brought in another 287 searchers Wednesday, including National Guard troops, bringing the total number of searchers to 461 plus 22 cadaver dogs. He said a rapid-DNA assessment system was expected to be in place soon to speed up identifications of the dead, though officials have tentatively identified 47 of the 56.Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke joined California Gov. Jerry Brown Wednesday on a visit to the nearby leveled town of Paradise, telling reporters it was the worst fire devastation he had ever seen.“Now is not the time to point fingers,” Zinke said. “There are lots of reasons these catastrophic fires are happening.” He cited warmer temperatures, dead trees and the poor forest management.WATCH BELOW: California governor compares wildfire impact area to a ‘war zone’
Click to play video: 'California wildfires: Governor Jerry Brown says wildfire-impacted areas look like a ‘war zone’' California wildfires: Governor Jerry Brown says wildfire-impacted areas look like a ‘war zone’
California wildfires: Governor Jerry Brown says wildfire-impacted areas look like a ‘war zone’ – Nov 14, 2018
Brown, a frequent critic of U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies, said he spoke with Trump, who pledged federal assistance.“This is so devastating that I don’t really have the words to describe it,” Brown said, saying officials would need to learn how to better prevent fires from becoming so deadly.It will take years to rebuild, if people decide that’s what should be done, said Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“The infrastructure is basically a total rebuild at this point,” Long said.
While most of the town of Paradise was wiped out, in Magalia, a sharp dividing line marks those that survived and those that did not.“Magalia has so many trees. I honestly can’t believe it just didn’t get leveled,” said Sheri Palade, an area real estate agent.For some, the areas left untouched offered a ray of hope.WATCH BELOW: Norovirus found at shelter housing wildfire evacuees
Click to play video: 'Camp fire: Norovirus found at shelter housing wildfire evacuees' Camp fire: Norovirus found at shelter housing wildfire evacuees
Camp fire: Norovirus found at shelter housing wildfire evacuees – Nov 14, 2018
Tom Driver, the office manager and elder at Magalia Community Church, said he had heard the church survived the blaze, though he did not know the status of his own home.“I’ve been able to account for all of the congregation,” said Driver, who is staying with family in Oakland. “They’re all over the place but they got out in pretty good time.”

READ MORE: Robin Thicke, Gerard Butler among celebrities who lost their homes in California wildfires

Driver said many residents of Magalia work at the university in Chico or out of their homes. When the blaze spread into Paradise, residents there drove down and faced horrendous traffic. Driver said he and some others in Magalia were able to escape north on a winding narrow road that put them ahead of the fire, not behind it.Kim Bonini heard someone on a bullhorn two blocks over on Thursday urging people to leave. The power in her home had gone out that morning, leaving her only with her car radio to tell her if she needed to leave.“My cell didn’t work, my house phone didn’t work, nothing. Nothing except for me crawling into my car,” Bonini said from her daughter’s home in Chico on Wednesday. “If I wouldn’t have heard them two blocks down I wouldn’t have known I had to evacuate.”The cause of the fire remained under investigation, but it broke out around the time and place that a utility reported equipment trouble.

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