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63 dead, 631 missing

At least 63 are now dead from a Northern California wildfire, and officials say they have a missing persons list with 631 names on it in an ever-evolving accounting of the missing after the nation's deadliest wildfire in a century.

Officials were scrambling to pinpoint everyone's whereabouts and Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said Thursday that the high number of missing people probably included some who fled the blaze and didn't realize they had been reported missing.

Authorities were making the list public so people could see if they were on it and let authorities know they were safe, Honea said.

"The chaos that we were dealing with was extraordinary," he 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."

Honea released the list as others questioned the chaotic evacuations of Nov. 8.

Ten years ago, as two wildfires advanced on Paradise, residents jumped into their vehicles to flee and got stuck in gridlock. That led authorities to devise a staggered evacuation plan — one they used when fire came again last week.

But Paradise's carefully laid plans quickly devolved into a panicked exodus last week. Some survivors said that by the time they got warnings, the flames were already extremely close, and they barely escaped with their lives. Others said they received no warnings at all.

Now authorities are facing questions of whether they took the right approach.

It's also a lesson for other communities across the West that could be threatened as climate change and overgrown forests contribute to longer, more destructive fire seasons.

Reeny Victoria Breevaart, who lives in Magalia, a forested community of 11,000 people north of Paradise, said she couldn't receive warnings because cellphones weren't working. She also lost electrical power.

Just over an hour after the first evacuation order was issued at 8 a.m., she said neighbours came to her door to say: "You have to get out of here."

Shari Bernacett, who with her husband managed a mobile home park in Paradise where they also lived, received a text ordering an evacuation. "Within minutes the flames were on top of us," she said.

Bernacett packed two duffel bags while her husband and another neighbour knocked on doors, yelling for people to get out. The couple grabbed their dog and drove through four-meter flames to escape.

In the aftermath of the disaster, survivors said authorities need to devise a plan to reach residents who can't get a cellphone signal in the hilly terrain or don't have cellphones at all.

In his defence, Honea said evacuation orders were issued through 5,227 emails, 25,643 phone calls and 5,445 texts, in addition to social media and the use of loudspeakers. As cellphone service went down, authorities went into neighbourhoods with bullhorns to tell people to leave, and that effort saved lives.

Honea said he was too busy with the emergency and the recovery of human remains to analyze how the evacuation went. But he said it was a big, chaotic, fast-moving situation, and there weren't enough law enforcement officers to go out and warn everyone.

"The fact that we have thousands and thousands of people in shelters would clearly indicate that we were able to notify a significant number of people," the sheriff said.

On Thursday, firefighters reported progress in battling the nearly 570-square-kilometre blaze that displaced 52,000 people and destroyed more than 9,500 homes. It was 40 per cent contained, fire officials said. Crews slowed the flames' advance in populated areas.



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