Crews search for California fire victims as list of missing grows

November 16, 2018 - 8:34 AM
Morning sun rises in Santa Ana, California
The morning sun rises as Santa Ana winds continue to blow causing a red-flag fire warning in Encinitas, California, U.S., November 14, 2018. (REUTERS/Mike Blake)

PARADISE, California — The search for victims of a catastrophic blaze that reduced a northern California town to ashes intensified on Thursday as authorities posted an expanded list of nearly 300 people reported missing in the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history.

At least 56 people have been confirmed dead so far in the Camp Fire, which erupted a week ago in the drought-parched Sierra foothills 280 km north of San Francisco and now ranks as one of the most lethal single U.S. wildfires since the turn of the last century.

Authorities attributed the high death toll in part to the staggering speed with which the wind-driven flames, fueled by desiccated scrub, raced through the town Paradise, a town of 27,000 residents.

Nearly 9,000 homes and other buildings, including most of the town, were incinerated last Thursday night, hours after the blaze erupted, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).

What was left was a ghostly, smoky expanse of empty lots covered in ash and strewn with twisted wreckage and debris.

Thousands of additional structures were still threatened by the blaze, and as many as 50,000 people remained under evacuation orders. An army of firefighters, many from distant states, labored to contain and suppress the flames.

The revised official roster of 297 individuals whose whereabouts and fate remained unknown is more than double the number of people Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said on Wednesday night had been reported missing by loved ones.

Honea said that the list of missing would fluctuate as more names are added and others are removed, either because they turn up safe or come to be identified among the dead.

DNA samples

The sheriff has asked relatives of the missing to submit DNA samples to hasten identification of the dead. But he acknowledged some of those unaccounted for may never be conclusively found.

The Butte County disaster coincided with a flurry of smaller blazes in Southern California, most notably the Woolsey Fire, which has been linked with three fatalities and destroyed at least 500 structures in the mountains and foothills near the Malibu coast west of Los Angeles.

The latest blazes have capped a pair of calamitous wildfire seasons in California that scientists largely attribute to prolonged drought they say is symptomatic of climate change.

The White House said on Thursday that President Donald Trump, who has been criticized as having politicized the fires by casting blame on forest mismanagement, plans to visit the fire zones on Saturday to meet with displaced residents.

Fire officials said the latest blazes in California had little to do with forest management because they occurred mostly in dry brush, chaparral and oak woodlands, rather than in heavy timber.

Cal Fire said that 40 percent of the Camp Fire’s perimeter had been contained, up from 35 percent, even as the footprint of the blaze grew 2,000 acres to 140,000 acres. Containment of the Woolsey fire grew to 57 percent.

Tent city

Those who survived the flames but lost their homes were adapting to a refugee lifestyle and many found a haven at a still-open Walmart store in Paradise. A section of the store’s parking lot was roped off for use as a distribution center for clothes, food and coffee, while people who fled their homes set up dozens of tents in an adjacent field or slept in their cars in the parking lot. Portable toilets were brought in.

Evacuees milling in the parking lot faced morning temperatures that dropped into the mid-30s Fahrenheit and many wore breathing masks for protection from lingering smoke.

Nicole and Eric Montague, along with their 16-year-old daughter, went to the Walmart parking lot for free food but have been living with extended family in nearby Chico, in a one-bedroom apartment filled with 15 people and nine dogs.

They recounted being stunned at how swiftly the fire roared through Paradise.

“We didn’t have any time to react,” Eric said. “The news didn’t even know the fire was coming. It just happened so quick.”

Nicole said she decided to flee once her home’s mailbox caught fire and neighbors’ propane tanks began exploding. With approaching flames and immovable traffic, her evacuation with her daughter was so harrowing that she called Eric to say they were going to die.

“I called him and said, ‘Honey, I’m not going to make it. I love you,'” Nicole said. —Reporting by Terray Sylvester; Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, Jonathan Allen in New York; Writing by Nick Carey and Bill Trott Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Lisa Shumaker