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California fires: Search for missing as rain expected to bring mudslides

Authorities have redoubled efforts to find more victims of the deadliest wildfire in California history and to account for nearly 1000 people listed as missing, with forecast rains expected to hinder the search and raise the risk of mudslides.

Remains of 79 victims have been recovered since the Camp Fire erupted on November 8 and largely obliterated the Sierra foothills hamlet of Paradise, a town of nearly 27,000 people 280km north of San Francisco.

media_cameraA California Fire firefighter pulls a hose towards a burning home as the Camp Fire moves through the area in Magalia, California. Picture: Getty

The latest official death toll was announced late on Sunday as the Butte County Sheriff’s Office also said it was reducing the number of names on its missing persons list to 993, down from 1276 a day earlier.

The roster has fluctuated dramatically over the past week as additional individuals were reported missing, or as some initially listed as unaccounted for either turn up alive or end up being identified among the dead.

Sheriff Kory Honea has said some people have been added to the list more than once at times under variant spellings of their names.

media_cameraRescue workers search for human remains at a home that was burned by the Camp Fire. Picture: Getty

As of Monday, the fire has incinerated more than 9800 homes along the way, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said.

But firefighters in recent days have gained significant ground against the blaze, carving containment lines around two-thirds of its perimeter, Cal Fire said.

Efforts to further suppress the flames were likely to benefit from a storm expected to dump as much as 10cm of rain north of San Francisco between late Tuesday and Friday, said Patrick Burke, a National Weather Service forecaster. But heavy showers carry the potential for unleashing dangerous mudslides in newly burned areas while also making it more difficult for forensic teams sifting through cinders and debris in search of additional bodies.

media_cameraJacob Saylors, 11, walks through the burned remains of his home in Paradise, California. Picture: AFP

Pathologists from the University of Nevada, Reno worked through the weekend as firefighters peeled back debris, collecting bits of burned bones and photographing everything that might help identify victims.

Intense fire over the slopes of canyons, hills and mountains makes them more prone to catastrophic erosion in the form of landslides, by burning away vegetation and organic material that normally holds soil in place.

media_cameraMembers of the California Army National Guard search a property for human remains at a home burned in the Camp fire. Picture: AP

The result can be heavy run-off of rainwater mixed with mud, boulders, trees and other debris that flow downhill with tremendous force, said Jason Kean, a research hydrologist for the US Geological Survey.

“Those debris flows have the consistency of wet concrete and move faster than you can run,” he said. “It’s like a flood on steroids … and a big one can take out two-storey buildings.” Nearly 800km south of Paradise near Malibu, west of Los Angeles, at least 3cm of rain is expected to fall on a second fire, the Woolsey, which has killed three people. That blaze was 94 per cent contained by Monday morning. The cause of both fires is under investigation, but electric utilities reported localised equipment problems around the time they broke out.

Originally published as Fire officials in race against time

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