Teams search for bodies in California after wildfire claims 42 lives
PARADISE, Calif.: Search teams will fan out across the charred landscape of Paradise, California looking for human remains on Tuesday as authorities prepare for a rise in the deathcount from the state’s deadliest wildfire.
The “Camp Fire” blaze still raging in northern California has killed at least 42 people. Another 228 have been listed as missing, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said.
Another two people died in the separate Woolsey Fire that has destroyed 435 structures and displaced about 200,000 people in the mountains and foothills near Southern California’s Malibu coast, west of Los Angeles.
“Camp Fire” – already ranked as the most destructive on record in California in terms of property losses – has consumed more than 7,100 homes and other structures since igniting on Thursday in Butte County’s Sierra foothills, about 175 miles (280 km) north of San Francisco.
A total of 150 search-and-recovery personnel were due to arrive on Tuesday, bolstering 13 coroner-led recovery teams in the fire zone, Honea said.
The sheriff said he also has requested three portable morgue teams from the U.S. military, a “disaster mortuary” crew and an unspecified number of cadaver dog units to assist in the search for human remains. Three groups of forensic anthropologists were also called in to help, he said.
The bulk of the destruction and loss of life occurred in and around the town of Paradise, where flames reduced most of the buildings to ash and rubble on Thursday night, just hours after the blaze erupted. Some 52,000 people remained under evacuation orders, the sheriff said.
Honea added that his office had received requests to check on the wellbeing of more than 1,500 people who had not been heard from by loved ones. Of those cases, 231 individuals had turned up safe, he said.
Authorities said on Monday evening that they found the bodies of 13 more victims, increasing the death toll from 29 tallied over the weekend.
The 42 confirmed fatalities marked the highest death toll in history from a single California wildfire, Honea said, far surpassing the previous record of 29 lives lost in 1933 from the Griffith Park blaze in Los Angeles.
The fires have spread with an erratic intensity that has strained firefighting resources while catching many residents by surprise.
Authorities are investigating the cause of the fires. PG&E Corp, which operates in northern California, and Edison International, the owner of Southern California Edison Company, have reported to regulators that they experienced problems with transmission lines or substations in areas where fires were reported, just before or close to the time they started.
The bodies of some of the Camp Fire victims were found in burned-out wreckage of vehicles that were overrun by walls of fire as evacuees tried to flee, only to be trapped in deadly knots of traffic gridlock on Thursday night.
More than 15,000 structures were threatened by the Camp Fire on Monday in an area so thick with smoke that visibility was reduced in some places to less than half a mile.
Crews have managed to carve containment lines around 30 percent of the Camp Fire perimeter, an area encompassing 117,000 acres of scorched, smoldering terrain.
To the south, Woolsey Fire has blackened nearly 94,000 acres and was also 30 percent contained as of Monday night, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire).
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. CalFire said 57,000 structures were still in harm’s way from the Woolsey Fire.
Nearly 9,000 firefighters, many from out of state, were battling to suppress the Camp Fire, the Woolsey Fire and a handful of smaller Southern California blazes, backed by squadrons of water-dropping helicopters and airplane tankers.
Some evacuees in Malibu, a seaside community whose residents include a number of Hollywood celebrities, were allowed to return home but were left without power or cellphone service.
California has endured two of the worst wildfire seasons in its history over the past couple of years, a situation experts attribute in large part to prolonged drought across much of the Western United States.