The search of nearly 18,000 fire-ravaged structures has not settled the question of why nearly 200 people remain on the list of the missing.

Search teams that rushed to northern California after fire leveled entire towns have completed their work, having checked every burned building in the fire zone for human remains, the authorities said Thursday (Nov. 29).

But the search of nearly 18,000 fire-ravaged structures — everything from homes, churches, stores and garden sheds — has not resolved the question of why nearly 200 people remain on the list of the missing, according to The New York Times.

It is possible that the death toll, which stands at 88, will rise, if some remains were overlooked or are found later in forests or other areas that were not searched.

Sheriff Kory L. Honea, of Butte County, who led the search, said Thursday that he was “very optimistic” that people currently listed as unaccounted for would be found alive and that the death toll was close to final.

“Given the due diligence that was done with regard to the search for human remains in the affected area, I am very hopeful that we won’t see any kind of increase,” he said.

The fire, which ignited Nov. 8 and destroyed 13,696 homes in and around the town of Paradise, north of Sacramento, is by far the most destructive in California history.

Last year, it took months to find the more than 2,200 people unaccounted for in Sonoma County after the fires incinerated thousands of homes.. The death toll in Sonoma from that fire was finalized at 24.

The town of Paradise, which had a population of 27,000, has remained evacuated since the fire. But Sheriff Honea said Wednesday that he would allow residents to return in phases starting early next week. Inclement weather could complicate the repopulation of the area, which was under a flash flood warning on Thursday. Officials have feared that heavy rains could trigger mudslides in fire-scarred forests.

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