By Sharon Bernstein
PARADISE, Calif. (Reuters) – Emergency teams searched on Monday for more than 200 people listed as missing in the deadliest northern California wildfire on record, and officials voiced concerns the casualty toll will climb higher as a resurgence of fierce winds fanned the flames.
The deadly Camp Fire also ranked as California’s most destructive ever in terms of property losses, having incinerated more than 6,700 homes and other buildings in the Sierra foothills of Butte County, about 175 miles (280 km) north of San Francisco.
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.
Most of the devastation and loss of life was in and around the town of Paradise, where flames reduced most of the buildings to ash and charred rubble on Thursday night, just hours after the blaze erupted.
At least 29 fatalities have been confirmed so far, a tally that ranks as the most ever from a single northern California wildfire – surpassing the 25 lives lost in the 1991 Oakland Hills firestorm – and ties the all-time statewide record set in 1933 by the Griffith Park blaze in Los Angeles.
Authorities reported two more people perished over the weekend in a separate blaze, dubbed the Woolsey Fire, that has destroyed 370 structures and displaced some 200,000 people in the mountains and foothills near Southern California’s Malibu coast, west of Los Angeles.
Both 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.
(GRAPHIC: Deadly California fires – https://tmsnrt.rs/2Plpuui)
HIGH WINDS RETURN
Perilous winds that stoked the fire through drought-parched brush and chaparral abated on Sunday, giving firefighters a chance to gain some ground against the flames. By Monday, they had managed to carve containment lines around 25 percent of the Camp Fire perimeter, an area encompassing 113,000 acres (45,729 hectares) of scorched, smoldering terrain.
The Woolsey Fire has blackened more than 91,000 acres and was 20 percent contained as of Monday, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire).
In the wake of the chaotic evacuations in and around Paradise, at least 228 people were listed as unaccounted for early on Monday, according to Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea.
Speaking on CNN, Honea held out hope many of the missing would turn up safe, but added: “Given what we’ve dealt with so far with casualties as a result of this fire, I have concerns that it (the death toll) will rise.”
Winds of up to 40 miles per hour (64 km per hour) were expected to continue in Southern California through Tuesday, heightening the risk of fresh blazes ignited by scattered embers, while winds were forecast to begin diminishing again in Butte County.
Taken together, the Camp Fire, the Woolsey Fire and a handful of smaller blazes in Southern California have displaced more than 224,000 people, CalFire said. About 8,000 firefighters were battling the flames, backed by squadrons of water-dropping helicopters and airplane tankers, including crews from out of state.
“These are extreme conditions. If there’s a fire in your neighborhood, don’t wait for an evacuation order, leave,” Los Angeles County Fire Department Chief Daryl Osby told a news conference.
Many of those allowed to return in Malibu, a seaside community that is home to many Hollywood celebrities, were left without power or cellphone service, even if their homes were spared by the flames.
Malibu resident Tony Haynes described how strong winds brought the fire through his neighborhood during the weekend, with the sky growing dark, saying there was so much smoke he put on his scuba-diving tank to breathe. Haynes said his home survived.
“It all came down to luck and a whole lot of buckets of water,” he told KTLA 5.
A smaller blaze in Southern California, the Hill Fire, was 75 percent contained, officials said.
Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, has asked U.S. President Donald Trump to declare a major disaster to bolster the emergency response and help residents recover. Trump, a Republican who has often criticized Democratic-led California on a variety of issues including immigration enforcement, blamed poor forest management by the state for the infernos.
Brian Rice, president of the California Professional Firefighters, called Trump’s statement “ill-timed” given the loss of life and ongoing search for missing people.
“You can’t just make a blanket statement,” Rice told MSNBC on Monday, adding that fires and forest management were complicated and that weather also was a major factor.
“Right now, what is needed is, really, support,” Rice said.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Additional reporting by Eric Thayer in Malibu, California; Stephen Lam in Paradise, California; Andrew Hay in New Mexico; Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Dana Feldman in Los Angeles, Barbara Goldberg and Jonathan Allen in New York; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Lisa Shumaker)