By Terray Sylvester
PARADISE, Calif. (Reuters) - Fire crews in northern California seized on improved weather conditions on Wednesday in their six-day-old battle to suppress the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history as National Guard troops were called in to help search for victims.
The confirmed death toll from the Camp Fire stood at 48 as the footprint of the fire grew by 5,000 acres to 135,000 acres(55,000 hectares), even as diminished winds and rising humidity allowed firefighters to carve containment lines around more than a third of the perimeter.
"Progress is being made," said Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) at a news conference flanked by Governor Jerry Brown, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and other officials.
The escalating search for additional human remains in the fire zone is focused on what little is left of Paradise, California, in the Sierra foothills about 175 miles (280 km) north of San Francisco, which was mostly incinerated last Thursday.
More than 8,800 buildings, most of them houses, burned to the ground in and around Paradise, a hamlet once home to 27,000 people. An estimated 50,000 people remained under evacuation orders.
"This is one of the worst disasters I've seen in my career, hands down," Brock Long, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told reporters in the nearby city of Chico.
Added Zinke, "This is the worst fire I have seen. And this is from a kid who grew up in Montana."
NO FINGER POINTING
After touring some of California's earlier wildfire zones in August, Zinke blamed "gross mismanagement of forests" because of timber harvest restrictions that he said were supported by "environmental terrorist groups."
But pressed by reporters on Wednesday, Zinke demurred. "Now is really not the time to point fingers," he said. "It is a time for America to stand together."
The killer 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 they say is symptomatic of climate change.
But lawyers for some of the victims are pointing to lax maintenance by an electric utility as the proximate cause of the fire, which officially remains under investigation.
The Butte County disaster coincided with a flurry of blazes in Southern California, most notably the Woolsey Fire, which has killed at least two people, destroyed more than 400 structures and displaced about 200,000 people in the mountains and foothills near the Malibu coast west of Los Angeles.
On Wednesday, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said the remains of a possible third victim were found in a burned-out dwelling, and are investigating the case as "an apparent fire-related" death.
President Donald Trump, who also has sought to blame forest management practices for California's fire woes, has declared both the Camp and Woolsey fires to be disaster areas, making federal emergency assistance more readily available.
In northern California, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said Tuesday night that a National Guard contingent of 100 military police trained to seek and identify human remains would join dozens of coroner-led recovery teams, cadaver dogs and forensic anthropologists already sifting through the charred, ash-strewn rubble of what was left in Paradise.
Cal Fire investigator Stewart Morrow was assessing property losses in Paradise, comparing piles of scorched rubble where houses once stood with online photos of the structures before the fire. He also was keeping an eye out for human remains.
"I’ve been a firefighter for 20 years and I’ve never seen a place so destroyed," Morrow told Reuters on Wednesday. "It’s unreal."
A group of three law firms representing multiple victims of the Camp Fire has filed a lawsuit against Pacific Gas & Electric alleging PG&E failed to properly maintain and replace its equipment and that "its inexcusable behavior" contributed to the cause of the Camp Fire.
The lawsuit alleges that prior to the Camp Fire, PG&E began warning customers it might turn off power because of the elevated risk of wildfires from high winds but never did so.
"It's important to remember that the cause (of the "Camp Fire") has yet to be determined," PG&E said in a statement. "Right now, our primary focus is on the communities, supporting first responders and getting our crews positioned and ready to respond when we get access, so that we can safely restore gas and electricity to our customers."
Wind-driven flames roared through Paradise so swiftly that residents were forced to flee for their lives with little or no warning.
Nearly 230 people have been listed as missing, but on Tuesday night Sheriff Honea said those numbers were highly fluid as some individuals may simply have fallen out of touch during chaotic evacuations.
Anna Dise, a resident of Butte Creek Canyon west of Paradise, told KRCR TV that her father, Gordon Dise, 66, was among those who died. They had little time to evacuate and their house collapsed on her father when he ran back inside to gather belongings.
Dise said she could not flee in her car because the tires had melted. To survive, she hid overnight in a neighbor's pond with her dogs.
"It was so fast," Dise recounted of the fire. "I didn't expect it to move so fast."
The fatality count of 48 from the Camp Fire far exceeds the previous record for the greatest loss of life from a single wildfire in California history - 29 people killed by the Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles in 1933.
PG&E and another major utility, Southern California Edison , reported to regulators they experienced problems with transmission lines or substations in areas around the time the blazes were first reported.
For a graphic on Deadly California fires, see - https://tmsnrt.rs/2Plpuui
(Additional reporting by Noel Randewich and Sharon Bernstein in Paradise and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; writing by Bill Trott and Steve Gorman; editing by David Stamp, Steve Orlofsky and James Dalgleish)