Death toll climbs with 1000 still missing in California fires
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Death toll climbs with 1000 still missing in California fires

Los Angeles: Seventy-six people are confirmed dead with more than 1000 people now listed as missing in the worst bushfires in California history.

Touring the devastation, even as firefighters were still battling fire fronts nearby, US President Donald Trump said people had to "see this to really understand it".

"I think everybody's seen the light," Trump said.

According to the latest data, the Camp fire in northern California has burnt through 59,893 hectares, destroyed 11,862 structures and is now 55 per cent contained.

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Authorities say at least 71 are now confirmed dead in the Camp fire with more than 1000 people unaccounted for.

The large number of remaining evacuees from the northern California fire - about 40,000 at last count - was the cause of the wildly fluctuating numbers of people reported missing.

A firefighter searches a burned-out building in Paradise, California.

A firefighter searches a burned-out building in Paradise, California.Credit:Bloomberg

Authorities say they are working to erase the duplication of names on the list, and also to reconcile the names of people who may be unaware they have been reported missing by neighbours or acquaintances.

The other major fire front, the Woolsey fire in southern California, has burnt through 39,805 hectares, destroyed 836 structures and is now 82 per cent contained.

Three people have been confirmed dead in the Woolsey fire. The remains of five more people were found on Saturday: four in the decimated town of Paradise and one in nearby Concow, bringing the number of dead to 76.

However, authorities warned the death toll is likely to rise as fire-devastated areas are opened up to support services that are combing the areas for remains.

The remains of a store in Paradise, California.

The remains of a store in Paradise, California.Credit:AP

Air Force One landed at Beale Air Force Base in northern California on Saturday morning, local time, with Trump. his son-in-law White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and White House chief of staff John Kelly aboard.

Trump also had three politicians in his touring party: congressmen Kevin McCarthy, Ken Calvert and Doug LaMalfa, who represent the California districts of Bakersfield, Corona and Richvale respectively.

Even as he attempted to strike a more conciliatory tone following a series of tweets in which he blamed California's forest management for the fires, the touring party did strike an oddly partisan note: the three politicians in Trump's party were all Republicans.

The party was met on the tarmac at Beale by California Governor Jerry Brown and Governor-elect Gavin Newsom.

President Donald Trump talks with California Governor-elect Gavin Newsom and Paradise Mayor Jody Jones during a visit to a neighbourhood destroyed by the wildfires, on Saturday.

President Donald Trump talks with California Governor-elect Gavin Newsom and Paradise Mayor Jody Jones during a visit to a neighbourhood destroyed by the wildfires, on Saturday.Credit:AP

Asked about the President's tweet storm, LaMalfa told US media that the fallout stemmed from the timing of the tweets and not the "substance of the argument".

"Without forest management, things can go wrong," La Malfa said.

The central flaw in the "forest management" argument, however, is that the two major fire fronts - Camp and Woolsey - are not taking place in forested areas, but rather areas that are designated in forest management as "wildland-urban interface".

Those are areas where undeveloped woodland and rural communities are adjacent.

Governo-elect Gavin Newsom, FEMA Director Brock Long, President Donald Trump, Paradise mayor Jody Jones and Governor Jerry Brown tour the Skyway Villa Mobile Home and RV Park, during Trump's visit of the Camp Fire in Paradise, California on Saturday.

Governo-elect Gavin Newsom, FEMA Director Brock Long, President Donald Trump, Paradise mayor Jody Jones and Governor Jerry Brown tour the Skyway Villa Mobile Home and RV Park, during Trump's visit of the Camp Fire in Paradise, California on Saturday.Credit:AP

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, California, as well as Texas and Florida, has one of the highest levels of human population in wildland-urban interface areas.

In addition, the most of California's forests are not actually managed by the state at all.

Two federal agencies, the Forest Service and the Interior Department, manage 57 per cent of California's forests, private, commercial (timber) and Native American interests control an additional 40 per cent and just 3 per cent are managed by state or local agencies.

Later, after touring the burnt remains of the town of Paradise, which is all but destroyed in the wake of the fire, Trump said he was stunned by the scale of the devastation.

"People have to see this to really understand it," he said. ""Hopefully this will be the last of these, because it was a really, really bad one.

"Nobody would have ever thought this could have happened," Trump added. "The federal government is behind you, we're all behind each other."

Trump said federal authorities would work with the state and also with environment groups to find a better strategy for forest management.

"I think everybody’s seen the light," Trump said.

Asked by media if his opinion on climate change had altered, Trump said it had not.

Residents wave to a motorcade during President Donald Trump's visit of the Camp Fire in Chico, California.

Residents wave to a motorcade during President Donald Trump's visit of the Camp Fire in Chico, California.Credit:AP

Smoke and ash from the fires has also contributed to a sharp drop in air quality in fire-affected parts of California, the National Weather Service has warned.

Drops in air quality stemming from the Camp fire, for example, have been reported as far afield as Sacramento and San Francisco.

Many schools and universities in northern California remain closed; San Francisco also suspended its cable car service on Friday to encourage residents to remain indoors until the air quality improved.

At 5pm Sunday, local time, the air quality index in San Francisco was reporting at 153; to put that in context any score below 50 is considered "good", results of between 151 and 200 are considered "unhealthy".

A tourist from San Diego takes a selfie as smoke from the Camp Fire fills the air in San Francisco, California,  on Friday.

A tourist from San Diego takes a selfie as smoke from the Camp Fire fills the air in San Francisco, California, on Friday.Credit:Bloomberg

In "unhealthy" conditions, people with heart or lung issues may encounter respiratory distress, and older adults and children are recommended to avoid prolonged or heavy exertion.

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The town of Lincoln, which is located north of Sacramento, is reporting an air quality index of 315, which is in the "hazardous" band; in such conditions outdoor movement of any kind is not recommended as the air quality is so poor.

Breathing air which is in over-300 range for a day is roughly the equivalent of smoking 14 cigarettes, according to a scientific paper published in 2015.

Fire stations in northern California were issuing "N95" masks to residents; they are white breathing masks which filter out 95 per cent of airborne particles.

But authorities were also issuing warnings to that unless the masks were used properly - with a complete seal around the mouth and nose and the nose-lock pinched tight - they were not only useless, they risked increasing the amount of inhaled carbon dioxide.

The masks were also mostly unsuitable for children and men with facial hair, authorities said.

The weather service also warned of strengthening winds up to 80kph and low humidity, and the additional threat of rain in parts of California, as autumn temperatures cooled ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday next week.

Though many might welcome the fire-suppressing power of heavy rain, rainfall in the wake of bushfire exposes the damaged soil surface to the risk of mudslides.

It will also further the complicate the search for remains in burned out areas, such as Paradise, in northern California.

Butte County sheriff Kory Honea said the situation was disheartening.

"As much as I wish we could get through this before the rains come, I don't know if that's possible," he said.

At the height of the fires last week, around 250,000 people were under mandatory evacuation orders but a number of those orders have now been lifted, as people are slowly returning home, even as both major fire fronts are still burning.

But the process of reopening areas to population has been slow, authorities say, because the fire has compromised power, gas and telephone lines in many areas.

"Multiple agencies must work together to inspect the impacted areas and determine overall safety." the Los Angeles county office of emergency management said in a statement.

Michael Idato is a Senior Writer based in Los Angeles for The Sydney Morning Herald.

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