Firefighters battle a blaze at the Salvation Army Camp on November 10 2018 in Malibu, California. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/ SANDY HUFFAKER
Firefighters battle a blaze at the Salvation Army Camp on November 10 2018 in Malibu, California. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/ SANDY HUFFAKER

Thousands of firefighters entered a fifth day on Monday digging battle lines to contain California’s worst wildfire as the wind-whipped flames cleaved a merciless path through the state’s northern hills, leaving death and devastation in their wake.

The “Camp Fire” – in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains north of Sacramento – has killed 29 people, matching the state’s deadliest brush blaze 85 years ago. More than 200 people are still unaccounted for, say officials.

It is the largest of several infernos that have sent a quarter of a million people fleeing their homes across the tinder-dry state, with winds of up to 100km/h fanning the fast-moving flames.

As well as the historic loss of life, the blaze is also more destructive than any other on record, having razed 6,500 homes in the town of Paradise, effectively wiping it off the map.

About 4,500 firefighters from as far as Washington and Texas have been working to halt the advance of the inferno as “mass casualty” search teams backed by anthropologists and a DNA lab pick through the charred ruins to identify remains, sometimes reduced to no more than shards of bone.

At least 31 people have died in fire zones in north and south California, where acrid smoke has blanketed the sky for kilometres, the sun barely visible.

On the ground, cars caught in the flames have been reduced to scorched metal skeletons, while piles of debris smoulder where houses once stood, an occasional brick wall or chimney remaining.

The Camp Fire has matched the 1933 Griffith Park disaster in Los Angeles – until now the single deadliest wildfire on record – according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).

Police say 228 people are unaccounted for in the Paradise area alone, though many may be in emergency shelters. Several fire-affected areas have been left with no cellphone service.

At the latest count the flames had reduced 45km² of Butte County’s forested hills mostly to charred wasteland, though just three firefighters have been injured in the effort to quell its advance.

At the southern end of the state, the “Woolsey Fire” has destroyed mansions and mobile homes alike in the coastal celebrity resort of Malibu, where the body count has been limited to two victims found in a vehicle on a private driveway.

The National Weather Service has issued a “red flag” alert warning of critical weather conducive to the spread of fire through Tuesday, with especially high winds expected in mountainous areas.

While some Malibu-area residents were allowed to return home late on Sunday, the city of Calabasas, just northeast of coastal Malibu, came under evacuation orders.

“This is not the new normal, this is the new abnormal. And this new abnormal will continue, certainly in the next 10 to 15 to 20 years,” California governor Jerry Brown said in a stark warning over the likely damaging effects of climate change.

“Unfortunately, the best science is telling us that the dryness, warmth, drought, all those things, they’re going to intensify.”

Over the weekend the Woolsey Fire engulfed parts of Thousand Oaks, where the community is still shell-shocked after a Marine Corps veteran shot dead 12 people in a country music bar last Wednesday.

The blaze has consumed about 34,000ha, destroyed at least 177 buildings and was 15% contained, Cal Fire said.

Singer Miley Cyrus’s home was one of the buildings destroyed in southern California. “Completely devestated (sic) by the fires affecting my community. I am one of the lucky ones. My animals and LOVE OF MY LIFE made it out safely & that’s all that matters right now,” she tweeted. “My house no longer stands but the memories shared with family & friends stand strong.”

Many of the southern California area’s residents own horses and for the past few days Twitter has been flooded with messages from people seeking and offering help.

Actor James Woods, a rare political conservative in liberal Hollywood, has made new friends by using his Twitter account to help find missing people and getting help for pets, including horses.

The Ventura County Humane Society said it was “deeply humbled by a $100,000 donation from [actress] Sandra Bullock and family” to rescue and care for animals evacuated from the fires.