The death toll from the Camp Fire in Northern California has soared to 44, making it the deadliest wildfire in recorded state history, the Butte County sheriff said on Monday.
The fire has leveled more than 7,100 homes and other buildings since it erupted on Thursday in the Sierra foothills of Butte County, about 175 miles (280 kilometers) north of San Francisco.
Sheriff Kory Honea said the number of people listed as missing in the disaster remained officially at 228, but added that his office had received more than 1,500 requests for "welfare checks" from people concerned about the fate of their loved ones.
More than 15,000 more structures remained listed as threatened on Monday in an area so thick with smoke that visibility was reduced in some places to less than half a mile.
The bulk of the destruction and loss of life occurred in and around the town of Paradise, home to 27,000, in Butte County. At the town, the flames reduced most of the buildings to ash and charred rubble on Thursday night, just hours after the blaze erupted.
The 42 confirmed fatalities mark the largest loss of life ever from a single wildland fire in California, Honea said. It also far surpasses the all-time record number of deaths from a California wildfire – 29 in 1933 from the Griffith Park blaze in Los Angeles.
US President Donald Trump said earlier that he approved an “expedited” major disaster declaration for California over the deadly wildfires burning at both ends of the state, to hasten the availability of federal emergency assistance to the fire-stricken regions.
The fires have spread with an erratic intensity that has strained resources and kept firefighters struggling to keep up with the flames while catching many residents by surprise.
The remains of some of the Camp Fire victims were found in burned-out vehicles that were overrun by walls of fire as evacuees tried to flee by car in panic, only to be trapped in deadly knots of traffic gridlock on Thursday night.
"It was very scary," Mayor Jody Jones recounted of her family's own harrowing escape from their home as fire raged all around them.
"It took a long time to get out. There was fire on both sides of the car. You could feel the heat coming in through the car," said Jones, adding that her family is now living in their mobile home parked in a vacant lot.
Honea said authorities have brought in 13 special search-and-recovery teams to seek out any further victims from the Camp Fire, and have requested additional cadaver-dog crews to assist in the search for human remains.