Death toll in California wildfires rises as homes left destroyed

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Two people have been found dead as a pair of wildfires stretched from inland canyons to the Pacific in southern California, leaving people sifting through the remains of their homes for anything they had left.

The two bodies were found severely burned inside a car on a long residential driveway in Malibu, Los Angeles County sheriff’s Chief John Benedict said.

The home is on a winding stretch of Mulholland Highway with steep panoramic views, where on Saturday the roadway was littered with rocks, a few large boulders and fallen power lines, some of them still on fire.

Most of the surrounding structures were levelled.

Southern California Wildfires
A firefighter looks for hot spots on a wildfire-ravaged home (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Firefighters have saved thousands of homes despite working in “extreme, tough fire conditions that they said they have never seen in their life”, Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said.

Those vicious conditions on Friday night gave way to a calm Saturday, with winds reduced to breezes.

No new growth was reported on the larger of the two fires, which stands at 109 square miles, and firefighters now have the blaze 5% contained.

Progress also came against the smaller fire, prompting Ventura County officials to allow people in a handful of communities to return to their homes.

Hundreds of thousands across the region remain under evacuation orders, and could stay that way for days as winds pick up again.

Mr Osby said losses to homes were significant but did not say how many had burned. Officials said earlier that 150 houses had been destroyed and the number would rise.

Fire burned in famously ritzy coastal spots like Malibu, where Lady Gaga, Kim Kardashian West, Guillermo del Toro and Martin Sheen were among those forced out of their homes amid a citywide evacuation order.

“It was way too big a firestorm,” said Lani Netter, whose Malibu home was spared while her neighbour’s burned.

“We had tremendous, demonic winds is the only way I can put it.”

The flames also burned inland through hills and canyons dotted with modest homes, reached into the corner of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, and stretched into suburbs such as Thousand Oaks, a city of 130,000 people that just a few days ago saw 12 people killed in a mass shooting at a country music bar.

Wildfire raged on both sides of the city still in mourning, where about three-quarters of the population are under evacuation orders that officials urged them to heed.

“We’ve had a lot of tragedy in our community,” said Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks, whose district includes Thousand Oaks.

“We don’t want any more. We do not want any more lives lost.”

The fire hopscotched around the Oak Park neighbourhood of 70-year-old Bill Bengston, leaving most houses untouched.

The home for 22 years of Mr Bengston and his wife, Ramona, was the only house on his block that burned. And it burned everything.

“It’s all gone,” he said softly as he sifted through the remains. “It’s all gone.”

The hardest to lose were the photos and the mementos handed down through the family — a cigar box that belonged to his great-grandfather; the handcuffs his father carried in the Second World War.

“We’re somewhat devastated,” Mr Bengston said. “Still a little bit numb.”

The area burning in southern California is in severe drought, US government analysts said.

California emerged from a five-year statewide drought last year but has had a very dry 2018, pushing parts of the state back into drought and leaving others, like the area of the northern California fire, abnormally dry.

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