Death toll rises to 56 in Butte County

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PARADISE, Calif. (AP) — With scores of people still missing, National Guard troops searched Wednesday through charred debris for more victims of California’s deadliest wildfire as top federal and state officials toured the ruins of a community completely destroyed by the flames.

The death toll from the Camp Fire now stands at 56, 130 people are still unaccounted for. Eight additional bodies were recovered today. 

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke joined Gov. Jerry Brown on a visit to the leveled town of Paradise, telling reporters it was the worst fire devastation he had ever seen.

“Now is not the time to point fingers,” Zinke said. “There are lots of reasons these catastrophic fires are happening.” He cited warmer temperatures, dead trees and the poor forest management.

Brown, a frequent critic of President Donald Trump’s policies, said he spoke with Trump, who pledged federal assistance.

“This is so devastating that I don’t really have the words to describe it,” Brown said, saying officials would need to learn how to better prevent fires from becoming so deadly .

About 7,700 homes were destroyed when flames hit Paradise, a former gold-mining camp popular with retirees, on Nov. 8, killing at least 48 people in California’s deadliest wildfire. There were also three fatalities from separate blazes in Southern California.

It will take years to rebuild the town of 27,000, if people decide that’s what should be done, said Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains looks like a wasteland.

“The infrastructure is basically a total rebuild at this point,” Long said. “You’re not going to be able to rebuild Paradise the way it was.”

Temporary schools and hospitals will be brought in, Long said. Officials are also looking to bring in mobile homes for thousands of people left homeless.

Debris removal in Paradise and outlying communities will have to wait until the search for victims finishes, he said.

That grim search continued Wednesday.

On one street, ash and dust flew up as roughly 20 National Guard members wearing white jumpsuits, helmets and breathing masks lifted giant heaps of bent and burned metal, in what was left of a home. Pink and blue chalk drawings of a cat and a flower remained on the driveway, near a scorched toy truck.

The soldiers targeted homes of the missing. If anything resembling human remains is found, a coroner takes over.

After the soldiers finished at the site, a chaplain huddled with them in prayer.

The number of missing is “fluctuating every day” as people are located or remains are found, said Steve Collins, a deputy with the Butte County Sheriff’s Department.

Authorities on Wednesday released the names of about 100 people who are still missing, including many in their 80s and 90s, and dozens more could still be unaccounted for. Sheriff’s department spokeswoman Megan McMann said the list was incomplete because detectives were concerned they would be overwhelmed with calls from relatives if the entire list were released.

“We can’t release them all at once,” McMann said. “So they are releasing the names in batches.”

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