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Recovery workers with cadaver dogs pressed on with their search for more victims in a flame-ravaged northern California town on Friday as authorities sought clues to the fate of more than 600 people reported missing in the deadliest wildfire in state history.
Remains of at least 63 people have been recovered so far in and around the Sierra foothills hamlet of Paradise, which was home to nearly 27,000 residents before the town was largely incinerated by the deadly Camp Fire on the night of November 8.
More than a week later, firefighters have managed to carve containment lines around 45 percent of the blaze's perimeter, up from 35 percent a day earlier, even as the burned landscape grew slightly to 57,000 hectares.
Besides the staggering toll on human life, property losses from the blaze make it California's most the destructive on record, posing a challenge of providing long-term shelter for many thousands of displaced residents.
With nearly 12,000 homes and buildings up in smoke, many refugees from the fire have taken up temporary residence with friends and family, while others have pitched tents or were camping out of their vehicles.
More than 11,000 evacuees were being housed in 14 emergency shelters set up in churches, schools and community centres around the region, American Red Cross spokeswoman Greta Gustafson said.
Search teams, meanwhile, combed through charred, rubble-strewn expanses of burned-out neighbourhoods looking for bodies - or anything else that might carry human DNA for identification purposes.
On Thursday night, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said the official roster of people reported unaccounted for by loved ones had grown to 630, more than double the number counted as missing earlier in the day. Meanwhile, the remains of seven more people were found, bringing the death toll to 63, he said.
Sheriff's spokeswoman Miranda Bowersox said the missing-persons list would likely fluctuate greatly.
"The overall number will go down, but in the short term we expect we will see new reports of people missing," she said.
Some of those still unaccounted for have likely survived but not yet notified family or authorities that they are alive, either because they lack telephone service or are unaware anyone is looking for them. On the other hand, there may be some people who perished but whose relatives have yet to report them missing. Communication disruptions after the fire have added to the confusion.
The disaster already ranks among the deadliest wildfires in the United States since the turn of the last century.
Authorities attribute the death toll partly to the speed with which flames raced through the town with little advance warning, driven by howling winds and fuelled by drought-desiccated scrub and trees.
Weather conditions have since turned more favorable to the firefighting effort, Nick Pimlott, a Cal Fire engineer, told KRCR-TV. He said winds had died down, allowing crews around Lake Oroville to the southeast of Paradise to extend and shore up containment lines around the blaze.
Many on the missing-persons list are over the age of 65, in keeping with the town's recent history as a haven for retirees.
'WHY AM I HERE?'
Family of retired US Navy veteran David Marbury (66), have not heard from him since the wildfire erupted. On Thursday, Marbury’s landlord confirmed to relatives that his Paradise duplex had burned down. His car was still in the garage.
"I really hope he’s still alive and we’re going to be able to see him," Marbury’s niece, Sadia Quint (30), told Reuters by phone.
Some said they were experiencing survivors' guilt. "You're like, 'Why am I here?'" Sam Walker, a pastor at the First Baptist Church of Paradise, told WBUR radio. "'Why is my family all here? Why are our churches still standing?' I don't know. My house is gone, like so many others.”
More than 300 California National Guard troops have been deployed to the fire zone to help search for victims, and to fill logistical, medical and administrative roles.
Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Angle said seven soldiers from his battalion lost their homes in the fire, including one woman who asked to help with the recovery effort because it was “better for her piece of mind to be part of it.”
The Camp Fire coincided with a series of smaller blazes in Southern California, most notably the Woolsey Fire, which is linked to three fatalities and has destroyed at least 500 structures near the Malibu coast west of Los Angeles. It was 57 percent contained on Friday.
Scientists have said the growing frequency and intensity of wildfires in California and elsewhere across the West are largely attributable to prolonged drought that is symptomatic of climate change.
U.S. President Donald Trump is due to visit the fire zones on Saturday to meet displaced residents. Critics say Trump, a Republican, has politicised the fires by blaming them, without supporting evidence, on forest mismanagement by California. Governor Jerry Brown and Governor-elect Gavin Newsom, both Democrats, planned to join Trump on his tour.
"Now is a time to pull together for the people of California," Brown and Newsom said in a joint statement.
Smoke from the Camp Fire has spread broadly. Public schools in Sacramento 150km to the south, and as far away as San Francisco and Oakland, cancelled classes for Friday because of poor air quality.