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Sniffer dogs join grim search for victims of deadly California fires


The devastating human toll from the California wildfires now stands at 44.

Body recovery teams with sniffer dogs carried out a grim search for fire victims on Tuesday as thousands of weary firefighters waged a pitched battle against the deadliest infernos in California's history.

At least 44 deaths have been reported so far from the late-season wildfires and with hundreds of people unaccounted for the toll is likely to rise.

Most of the fatalities have been reported from the town of Paradise, population 26,000, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains about 130 kilometres north of Sacramento.

A helicopter makes a water drop on the Woolsey Fire near Malibu, California
A helicopter makes a water drop on the Woolsey Fire near Malibu, California.

Paradise, which is home to many elderly retirees and has experienced an unusually dry fall, was virtually razed to the ground by the fast-moving "Camp Fire" blaze.

Residents have recounted harrowing tales of fleeing the fires on foot with little more than the clothes on their backs.

Others escaped by driving through tunnels of smoke and fire as flames licked at their vehicles on gridlocked roads dotted with abandoned cars.

"I was like, 'I think I'm done,'" said Allyn Pierce, a nurse who fled the fire in Paradise in his truck.

"I just kept thinking, 'I'm going to die in melting plastic,'" Pierce told The New York Times.

At least 42 deaths have been reported from the "Camp Fire" in Butte County and another two from the "Woolsey Fire," north of Los Angeles.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said Monday that search teams were using "cadaver dogs" to look for fire victims and two temporary military morgues were being set up.

Hundreds of thousands flee

The "Camp Fire," which erupted on Thursday, has ravaged 125,000 acres (50,585 hectares) of land and is 30 percent contained, according to Cal Fire.

California wildfires
The Woolsey fire has burned more than 143 square miles and evacuation orders were issued to 265,000 people in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

"Last night firefighters continued to hold established containment lines," Cal Fire said in a Tuesday morning update. "Firefighters actively fought the fire and worked aggressively."

Winds of up to 100 kilometres per hour have been fanning the fast-moving flames and no rainfall is forecast for the next few days.

Butte County has seen less than an inch of rainfall in more than 30 weeks. 

The "Camp Fire" has destroyed more than 6,500 homes and 260 commercial properties. Battling the blaze are 5,100 firefighters, some from Washington state and Texas, backed by more than 600 fire engines and 21 helicopters, Cal Fire said.

The "Woolsey Fire," which also began on Thursday, has razed 37,900 hectares including the 100-year-old Paramount Ranch where HBO's "Westworld" and other popular television shows and movies were filmed.

The fires have forced a quarter of a million people to flee their homes and seven evacuation shelters have been set up in Butte County, three of which are already full, according to the authorities.

On Monday, President Donald Trump - at the request of state authorities - declared that a "major disaster" exists in California.

The declaration provides for federal assistance to aid state firefighting and recovery efforts in the counties of Butte, Ventura and Los Angeles.

Trump had earlier earned the ire of state officials with a claim that "gross mismanagement" of forestry in the state was responsible for the damage.

'One of the luck ones'

"This is not the new normal, this is the new abnormal," California Governor Jerry Brown said in a stark warning over the likely damaging effects of climate change.

"And this new abnormal will continue, certainly in the next 10 to 15 to 20 years," Brown said.

"Unfortunately, the best science is telling us that the dryness, warmth, drought, all those things, they're going to intensify."

The "Woolsey Fire" on the southern end of the state has devoured mansions and mobile homes alike in the coastal town of Malibu.

Over the weekend, the "Woolsey Fire" engulfed parts of Thousand Oaks, where a Marine Corps veteran shot dead 12 people in a country music bar on Wednesday.

Among those who lost their homes was the pop star Miley Ray Cyrus, who tweeted that her "house no longer stands but the memories shared with family & friends stand strong."

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