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Fire death toll at 56 and counting in Northern California

Posted: 2:17 PM, Nov 15, 2018
Updated: 2018-11-15 22:18:50Z

MAGALIA, Calif. (AP) — Cool weather helped fire crews gain ground Thursday against the nation's deadliest wildfire in a century, as the search went on for more bodies. At least 56 people were killed and 300 were unaccounted for a week after the flames swept through.

The nearly 220-square-mile (570-square-kilometer) blaze in Northern California was 40 percent contained, the state fire agency said, and firefighters succeeded in slowing the flames' advance toward populated areas.

More than 450 searchers were assigned to look for remains in Paradise, which was all but destroyed Nov. 8, and in outlying areas such as Magalia, a forested town of about 11,000. Many of the missing were elderly and from Magalia.

"If this town does recover, it's going to take many, many years," said Johnny Pohmagevich, an 18-year Magalia resident who lives up the road from many burned homes.

Police drove around town, searching for those still in their homes and checking if they needed food and water.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said Wednesday night that 130 people were missing. His office later released a list of 300 who were unaccounted for, though spokeswoman Miranda Bowersox said some of those may simply not have checked in with officials or family.

At the other end of the state, crews made progress against a blaze of more than 153 square miles (396 square kilometers) that destroyed over 500 structures in Malibu and other Southern California communities. The fire was 57 percent contained, Cal Fire reported.

At least three deaths were reported in Southern California.

Officials in Northern California put the number of homes lost there at nearly 8,800, and the sheriff said the task of recovering remains had become so vast that his office brought in 287 more searchers Wednesday, including National Guard troops. The search crews used 22 cadaver dogs.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke joined California Gov. Jerry Brown on a visit to Paradise on Wednesday, saying 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 higher temperatures, dead trees and the poor forest management.

The governor said officials would need to learn how to better  prevent fires from becoming so deadly  .

It will take years to rebuild, if people decide that's what should be done, said Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "The infrastructure is basically a total rebuild at this point," he said.

While most of Paradise was wiped out, in Magalia there was a sharp dividing line between homes that burned and those that were spared.

"Magalia has so many trees. I honestly can't believe it just didn't get leveled," said Sheri Palade, an area real estate agent.

Tom Driver, the office manager and elder at Magalia Community Church, said he heard the church made it through the blaze, though he did not know whether his home did.

"I've been able to account for all of the congregation," said Driver, who is staying with family in Oakland. "They're all over the place, but they got out in pretty good time."

Kim Bonini, one of those who got out safely, left after hearing someone on a bullhorn two blocks over urging people to leave. The power in her home had gone out that morning, leaving her with only her car radio.

"My cell didn't work, my house phone didn't work, nothing. Nothing except for me crawling into my car," Bonini said from her daughter's home in Chico. "If I wouldn't have heard them two blocks down, I wouldn't have known I had to evacuate."

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Associated Press writers Janie Har and Olga R. Rodriguez in San Francisco, Amy Taxin in Santa Ana, California and Andrew Selsky in Salem, Oregon, also contributed to this report.