The hellish California wildfires are now the most destructive in state history, authorities said Monday as they continued the grim task of searching for bodies and investigated whether faulty utility equipment sparked the blazes.
With the death toll reaching 31 and 228 people still missing, the massive Camp Fire in the northern part of the state and the Woolsey and Hill blazes to the south have together wiped out 200,000 acres and thousands of buildings and homes.
At least 29 people have died in the Camp Fire alone, tying a 1933 record for the most deaths in a single wildfire in the state.
“Given what we’ve dealt with so far . . . I have concerns that [the death toll] will rise,” Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea, whose area includes the demolished northern town of Paradise, told CNN.
The grim prediction came as the California Public Utilities Commission launched an investigation into two of the state’s largest utilities — PG&E in Northern California and Southern California Edison. The utilities had reported electrical-equipment malfunctions near the start of the blazes.
The probe will “assess the compliance of electric facilities with applicable rules and regulations in fire impacted areas,” said commission spokeswoman Terrie Prosper.
Most of the 29 people killed in the Camp Fire were discovered in the smoldering ruins of their homes in Paradise — where a large, tattered American flag flew among the ashes — and in neighboring towns, as well as in the burned-out cars they were using to flee the blaze, officials said.
Authorities scoured for more bodies but they said they still face hurdles.
“I’ll tell you, it’s very, very hard,” Honea told the Chico Enterprise-Record. “There is so much debris in some of these areas that it’s very difficult to determine whether or not there might be human remains there.
“In some cases, the fire burned so intensely that it burned everything to the ground, and in some cases, it melted the metal,” the sheriff said. “In those cases, it is possible the temperatures were high enough to completely consume the body.”
In some areas, the ground was still too hot for even cadaver dogs to step on.
Authorities are employing 10 DNA lab trucks to identify victims, as well as two teams of anthropologists from California State University, Chico to help in cases where only bone fragments were found.
Honea said family members searching for missing loved ones may be asked to provide a DNA sample to help identify remains.
“What I will say is we are very early in our efforts,” Honea said “There is still a great deal of work to do.”
A total of 4,555 people are working “aggressively” to battle the Camp Fire flames, according to Cal Fire, the state’s wildfire-fighting agency.
President Trump thanked first responders in a tweet on Monday, writing: “The California Fire Fighters, FEMA and First Responders are amazing and very brave. Thank you and God Bless you all!”
Meanwhile, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, is pushing for $720 million in wildfire-relief funds.
The Camp Fire erupted on Thursday and grew by 5,000 acres in just three hours — or an average of more than one football field every three seconds.
Expected high winds through Tuesday could only worsen the flames, authorities said, adding that the blaze isn’t expected to be contained until Nov. 30.
The Camp Fire has so far consumed 113,000 acres of land and destroyed 6,713 properties, while another 15,500 structures remain threatened.
The inferno has already cost $2 billion to $4 billion in insured property damage, Morgan Stanley estimated in a report Monday.
Meanwhile, the Woolsey and Hill fires in Southern California, which are threatening the star-studded neighborhood of Malibu, grew more than 143 square miles overnight. The blaze won’t be fully contained until at least Saturday, officials said.
Two people have been killed in those blazes and 370 structures destroyed.
With Wire Services
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