More bodies expected to be found in ruins of California fire

2015-09-17 11:44
Firefighter Sean Norman, right, and search dog handlers Lynne Engelbert, left, and Mary Cablk look over the remains of a home in the Anderson Springs area of a man missing following a wildfire days earlier, September 16, 2015. (Elaine Thompson, AP)

Firefighter Sean Norman, right, and search dog handlers Lynne Engelbert, left, and Mary Cablk look over the remains of a home in the Anderson Springs area of a man missing following a wildfire days earlier, September 16, 2015. (Elaine Thompson, AP)

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Middletown – Cadaver dogs and their handlers searched on Wednesday for a man feared to have perished in a fast-moving Northern California wildfire, and the local sheriff says he expects several more bodies will eventually be found amid the ashes.

An elderly, disabled woman's body was found on Monday in the ruins of her destroyed Lake County home, and authorities were searching nearby for a 69-year-old man reported missing by his family. His burned-out car was found on the route he would have used to escape.

"We've already had a confirmed loss of one life," Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin said while on a tour of the disaster zone with state emergency officials. "We have reports of several others that may have perished in the fire."

State and local officials in a convoy of government-issued SUVs inspected the devastated region about 1 560km north of San Francisco on Wednesday morning, viewing still-smoldering ruins.

Smoking power lines dangled overhead. The convoy stopped frequently to view the hardest-hit areas.

The officials are contemplating asking President Barack Obama for emergency federal assistance. Obama and Gov Jerry Brown are expected to discuss the matter on Wednesday.

"It's not a pretty picture," said Kim Zagaris, the state's fire chief, on the tour. "There's going to be a lot of heartbreak for the folks who live out here."

Zagaris said officials have counted 603 homes destroyed, but that he expects that number to rise.

Sheriff's deputies and others have responded to a number of missing-persons reports since the fire broke out on Saturday. Many of those unaccounted for could be staying with relatives, on vacation or not affected by the fire, officials said.

Aided by drought, the fire has consumed more than 280 sq kilometres since the flames sped on Saturday through rural Lake County, less than 160km north of San Francisco. Crews are gaining ground on the fire and were able to double containment from 15% to 30% on Wednesday, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesperson Dan Olson said.

The weather was cooperating, with heavy rain falling on Wednesday morning.

"We're trying to use that the best we can," Olson said. "Hopefully we get a little bit more rain."

Some residents have cried as they walked through the rubble of their homes. Other residents hared amazing stories of survival as they surveyed the twisted metal and smoking ruins lefts behind by the fire.

Authorities say 585 homes were known to be destroyed, and the number was expected to increase. Another 9 000 structures remained threatened.

The Lake County fire and another blaze about 195km to the southeast have displaced 23 000 people and were the worst of a dozen wildfires burning in the state. The Lake County fire spread into northern Napa County, but the region's famous wine valley was not threatened.

Lake County has been particularly hard-hit. In late July, a wildfire east of Clear Lake destroyed 43 homes as it spread across more than 260 square kilometres. Another fire erupted August 9 several kilometres from the community of Lower Lake.

A separate destructive wildfire burning less than 320km away in the Sierra Nevada had destroyed at least 233 homes. The blaze in Amador and Calaveras counties has charred more than 285 square kilometres and was 45% contained on Wednesday. It was threatening another 6 400 structures.

East of Fresno, California's largest wildfire had moved away from the Sierra Nevada's Giant Sequoia trees, some of which are 3 000 years old.

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