Science

California authorities take DNA samples to identify fire victims

California authorities were taking DNA samples from relatives on Thursday to help identify victims of the western US state's deadly wildfires and seeking to track down some 300 missing persons.

Rescue workers sift through rubble in search of human remains at a burned property in Paradise, California
Rescue workers sift through rubble in search of human remains at a burned property in Paradise, California (AFP)

California authorities were taking DNA samples from relatives on Thursday to help identify victims of the western US state's deadly wildfires and seeking to track down some 300 missing persons.

At least 59 deaths have been reported so far from the sprawling blazes in northern and southern California and the toll is expected to rise as body recovery teams with sniffer dogs conduct house-to-house searches.

Fifty-six of the deaths and most of those unaccounted for are from the Butte County town of Paradise in northern California, which was decimated by the so-called Camp Fire that erupted a week ago.

The Butte County Sheriff's Office published a list late Wednesday of about 300 people who are missing. Some may have fled their homes and not been in touch with family and friends but others are believed to have died in the fast-moving Camp Fire.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said 461 search and rescue personnel and 22 "cadaver dogs" were involved in the effort to locate the missing and DNA testing was being expedited to identify victims.

He said 47 of the 56 fatalities have been tentatively identified so far using "rapid DNA" techniques.

"Beginning Thursday, anyone who believes a family member perished can provide a DNA sample," Honea said.

Paradise, a town of around 26,000 in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, was popular with retirees and many of those reported missing by the sheriff's office are elderly -- in their 70s, 80s and 90s.

Virtually every home in Paradise, located 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of the state capital Sacramento, was destroyed by the fire fueled by high winds.

Body recovery teams are conducting a painstaking search of burned-out homes for human remains in the town and closely examining the many charred cars littering the roads.

The 56 deaths reported from the Camp Fire make it the deadliest blaze in California's recent history. Three people have died in the Woolsey Fire northwest of Los Angeles.

'A catastrophe'

The California fire department (Cal Fire) said early Thursday that the Camp Fire has destroyed 140,000 acres (56,655 hectares) and was 40 percent contained.

It said nearly 5,500 firefighters were battling the blaze and it did not expect it to be fully contained for another two weeks.

The Camp Fire has destroyed more than 8,650 single family homes and 260 commercial buildings, Cal Fire said.

The Woolsey Fire has razed 98,000 acres (39,660 hectares) and has been 57 percent contained.

A number of celebrities have lost their homes in Malibu as a result of the inferno, including Pierce Brosnan, Miley Cyrus, Neil Young, Robin Thicke, Shannen Doherty and Gerard Butler.

California Governor Jerry Brown, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Brock Long, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), toured the damage in Paradise on Wednesday.

"We are in the midst of a catastrophe," Brown told a press conference. "The fire was unprecedented, overwhelming, so a lot of people got caught."

Long said Paradise was looking at a "total rebuild" with most homes, businesses and infrastructure destroyed.

"This is going to be a very long and frustrating event for the citizens of Paradise," Long said. "We're going to have to find a new normal."

"You're not going to be able to rebuild Paradise the way it was."

Authorities said it was unclear when residents would be allowed back into the town.

While the cause of the Camp Fire is still under investigation, a lawsuit has been filed against the local power company, PG&E, by fire victims claiming negligence by the utility.

The complaint alleged that the fire began on November 8 when a high voltage transmission line failed, igniting tinder-dry vegetation.