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California wildfires: Number of missing leaps to 1,000 as death toll rises to 74 ahead of Trump visit

At least 71 people are confirmed to have died in a catastrophic wildfire in northern California while a further 1,000 are still missing, officials have said.

What was already the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in the state’s history now ranks as one of the most lethal wildfires in the US

Authorities attributed the high death toll from the so-called Camp Fire, which erupted last Thursday in the drought-parched Sierra foothills 175 miles north of San Francisco, in part to the staggering speed with which the wind-whipped flames raced with little warning through Paradise, a town of 27,000. 

Nearly 12,000 homes and buildings, including most of the town, were incinerated hours after the blaze erupted, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) has said. Three other people have died in a fire in southern California.

Thousands of additional structures were still threatened by the Camp Hill fire, and as many as 50,000 people were under evacuation orders at the height of the blaze. An army of firefighters, many from distant states, worked to contain and suppress the flames.

Donald Trump, who has been criticised for politicising the fires by casting blame on forest management, plans to visit the fire zones on Saturday to meet displaced residents, the White House announced.

The number of people unaccounted for grew from 631 on Thursday night to more than 1,011 on Friday, but Sheriff Kory Honea said the list was dynamic and could easily contain duplicate names and unreliable spellings of names. 

He said the list probably includes some who fled the blaze and do not realise they've been reported missing.

The sheriff added that he was making the list of missing public so people could see if they were on it and let authorities know they were safe. 

“The chaos that we were dealing with was extraordinary,” Mr Honea said of the early crisis hours last week. “Now we’re trying to go back out and make sure that we’re accounting for everyone.” 

The sheriff asked relatives of the missing to submit DNA samples to hasten identification of the dead, but acknowledged some of those unaccounted for may never be conclusively found. 

The Butte County disaster coincided with a flurry of smaller blazes in southern California, including the Woolsey Fire, which has been linked with three fatalities and has destroyed at least 500 structures in the mountains and foothills near the Malibu coast west of Los Angeles.

Cal Fire said that 40 per cent of the Camp Fire’s perimeter had been contained, up from 35 per cent, even as the blaze footprint grew 2,000 acres to 141,000 acres (57,000 hectares). Containment of the Woolsey fire grew to 57 per cent.

Night vision military drone shows Camp Fire tearing through California

The latest blazes have capped a pair of calamitous wildfire seasons in California that scientists largely attribute to prolonged drought they say is symptomatic of climate change.

The cause of the fires are under investigation. But two electric utilities have said they sustained equipment problems close to the origins of the blazes around the time they were reported.

Additional reporting by agencies

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