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Death toll rises to 76 in California wildfires as relatives search for the missing

Authorities searched for victims of the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif., north of Sacramento, the deadliest wildfire in the history of the state. (Video: Jorge Ribas, Alice Li/The Washington Post)

PARADISE, Calif. — Amid a throat-piercing haze, disabled retiree Michael French walked with effort across a parking lot to submit a DNA sample to California authorities that he hopes will help him locate his missing niece.

French, 62, said he and other relatives have searched for Wendy since a fast-moving wildfire — the most destructive in California’s history — swept through 11,000 homes and buildings in Paradise and adjoining mountaintop communities on Nov. 8, leaving at least 76 dead.

“No one has heard from her at all. She has not made contact with us, so I am deeply concerned,” French said. The family assumes the worst.

As firefighters battle to contain the deadly Camp Fire, authorities intensified efforts to identify the lost and the dead. Teams of volunteers in white protective gear searched blackened ground and family members came to makeshift DNA centers where their mouths were swabbed to help identify victim remains.

On Saturday, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said that the list of people unaccounted for was up to 1,276 and that 63 victims have been tentatively identified.

On Friday authorities released more than 600 names in an effort to identify those who had been found by friends and relatives. The astonishing tally raised fears that the death toll would rise exponentially. On Saturday, Honea urged people to look at the list and contact the sheriff’s office if they see their name on the list.

The lengthy list confused even President Trump, who tweeted Friday that “as many of 600” people could have perished in the flames.

“Burned beyond recognition, they can’t even see the bodies, it’s incredible,” said Trump, who is scheduled to visit the area Saturday, in an interview with “Fox News Sunday” anchor Chris Wallace.

But as the names of the unaccounted for expanded into the quadruple digits, Honea cautioned that it’s possible many of those listed are safe but had not called authorities to confirm. Some names on the list could be duplicates with different spellings, he added.

“We have a significant event, an unprecedented event, where massive numbers of people were displaced and scattered all over Northern California,” he said, explaining why it’s been difficult to confirm the missing on the expanding list of names.

Among those who had been found but were still listed as unaccounted for was Suzanne Heffernan’s mother, Shirley Woodhouse. Heffernan had spoken with her parents as they evacuated their home in Paradise a week earlier, and she and her four siblings had been in close contact about their parents’ welfare ever since.

So Heffernan was surprised to get a call from a local sheriff’s office on Thursday telling her that her mother, who is in her 80s, was on the list of people unaccounted for. One of Woodhouse’s high school friends had added her.

It’s interesting, she said, “if outsiders and nonfamily members are adding people to the missing list.”

Here is what wildfires and the devastation in Northern and Southern California looks like

Brenda Wilson sits with her dog Scooby at an evacuee encampment outside a Walmart parking lot in Chico, Calif. (Josh Edelson/For The Washington Post)

Authorities and residents of Paradise — a community of 26,000 residents nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills — said the death toll will likely rise in this town where many came to retire and escape the bustle of the city, though it’s unclear how high. Among the residents are many elderly or infirm who may have been unable to flee as the flames approached.

Honea said it’s “certainly within the realm of possibility that we will never know” the exact number of people killed in the blaze.

“It is my sincere hope that we identify everybody who is missing and identify any remains,” he added. “But that is the nature of this tragedy. ... This is a massive, massive undertaking.”

Despite days of searching the scorched acreage with the largest search-and-rescue team in state history, authorities said they have barely scratched the surface of the area that could contain human remains.

That could mean a long wait for friends and relatives of the missing.

Friday would have been Dorothy Lee Mack’s 88th birthday, and her sister-in-law hadn’t heard from her since the fire swept through the Ridgewood Mobile Home Park, where Mack lived at number 19.

Mack is not one to give in easily, said her sister-in-law, Marian Mack. She survived polio when she was 10 and later a bout with cancer and two hip replacements. But Marian didn’t know whether Dorothy would have heard the emergency officials who rushed among the mobile homes at about 6:30 a.m., ringing bells to wake their sleeping occupants.

“It’s been a terrible time,” said Marian Mack, who sometimes visited on Dorothy’s birthday. “We just have to wait and pray.”

The Camp Fire has consumed 149,000 acres — an area the size of Chicago — and is 50 percent contained. But multiple fires continue to rage across the state. In Southern California, the Woolsey Fire has blazed across an area from Simi Valley to the multimillion-dollar beach homes in Malibu. At least three people have been killed in that fire.

The wildfires reduced Paradise to ashes and razed much of Malibu's landscape. (Video: Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)

More than 9,000 firefighters are working to contain the Camp and Woolsey fires with water tankers and helicopters, blazes that have destroyed more than 12,000 structures, according to Cal Fire.

The National Weather Service has issued a red flag warning in the Camp Fire region for Saturday night into Sunday, meaning high winds could cause the flames to spread rapidly. Authorities are adding fire crews to help prevent the fire from growing.

They’re also widening efforts to identify human remains, posting “Rapid DNA” machines near fire scenes. The technology allows relatives to supply their genetic material through a cheek swab and compare it with a database of unidentified victims in less than two hours.

The machines, about the size of a mini-fridge, are part of a new initiative that’s being rolled out by law enforcement after receiving congressional approval last year. The FBI hopes to launch a pilot program for police to test suspects in booking stations and forward the results to state crime labs and the national DNA database early next year, the agency said.

ANDE, a Waltham, Mass., company, is one of two companies approved to supply the quick-analysis machines to the government, and sent six of them to various fire command posts on Wednesday, chief communications officer Annette Mattern said. The DNA samples collected there will only be used to identify victims, she said, and those machines are not connected to the national DNA database.

Authorities hope to encourage more relatives of the missing to use them. Only 17 DNA samples have been processed, they said.

On Friday, displaced residents who are camping out in a Walmart parking lot in Chico visited an abandoned Sears store where the Federal Emergency Management Agency had set up services.

Jeff Hansen, 37, waited for several hours to apply for emergency assistance for his nine-member family, including a 36-year-old brother with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair. He lost his house in Paradise, his workplace and one of his three cars in the fire.

“Hopefully FEMA will help us,” Hansen said.

The center also became a spot for impromptu reunions, as displaced residents ran into friends and neighbors who they feared had died in the fire.

Lindsay Nelson, 37, had been fretting for days about what happened to her 78-year-old drinking buddy, “Jay Jay.” But when she saw him at the center, Nelson hugged him and snapped a photograph to post on Facebook.

“No one had heard from him, we thought he was missing. So, so glad to see him and know he is okay,” said Nelson, who had lived in Paradise but lost the home she was renting there. “This is such a relief. I don’t want to hear any of my friends didn’t make it, it would just be too hard with everything else going on.”

But with the death toll set to rise, Nelson is still bracing for the worse.

“The fact is, everyone knows they will know someone who didn’t make it,” she said. “The fact is, we will need to build a memorial in Paradise.”

To read the list of unaccounted for persons in the Camp Fire released by the Butte County Sheriff’s Office, go to Authorities are also asking people who know someone on the list that knows that person is safe to call either (530) 538-6570, (530) 538-7544 or (530) 538-7671 to speak with someone on the task force set up to manage the list.

Annie Gowen and Frances Sellers reported from Washington. Tom Jackman and Julie Tate contributed to this report from Washington.