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At Least 29 Dead in Wildfire That Destroyed Northern California Town and Is Now the Most Destructive Fire in California History
Published: November 11, 2018
At least 29 people have died as a result of the Camp Fire, a fast-moving Northern California wildfire that has become the state's most destructive on record, officials say.
The remains of 14 additional people were found on Saturday and 6 more on Sunday, including 16 in Paradise and 4 in Concow, authorities announced.
Nine previous victims were found in Paradise, a town of 27,000 that was evacuated as a result of the fire.
“It looked like the gates of hell opened up, I swear,” evacuee James Brown told the Record Searchlight.
The Camp Fire is now tied as the deadliest fire in California's history. It surpassed the death toll in last year’s Tubbs Fire, which killed 22 people, according to CalFire. The 1933 Griffith Park fire, which also killed 29 people, is the other deadliest fire in California.
On Sunday, at least five search teams were working in Paradise and surrounding communities. The Associated Press reported that authorities had called in a mobile DNA lab and two teams of anthropologists to help identify victims.
The Camp Fire, which started early Thursday morning, had grown in size to 173 square miles by Sunday evening and was 25 percent contained. But Cal Fire spokesman Bill Murphy warned that gusty winds predicted into Monday morning could spark "explosive fire behavior."
"We're at a pivotal point now," said another Cal Fire official, David Clark.
Also on Sunday, the world’s largest air tanker joined the fight against the Camp Fire. The Global SuperTanker, a converted 747-400, can safely fly with more than 19,000 gallons of fire retardant or water, according to CBS News. That's roughly twice as much as the next largest tanker.
An estimated 6,453 homes and 260 commercial structures have already been destroyed by the fire, according to CalFire. This number did not increase on Saturday. Another 15,000 remained threatened in the area.
An estimated 80 to 90 percent of Paradise was wiped out by flames Thursday night, the town mayor told the Sacremento Bee.
The sheriff says they have taken 228 reports of people that are unaccounted for, but some of these people may be in shelters or have not reached out to loved ones.
Three firefighters have been injured, CalFire said Friday.
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. said in a one-paragraph summary filed Thursday with state utility regulators that it had experienced a problem on an electrical transmission line near the Camp Fire site 15 minutes before the blaze broke out, the Associated Press reported. The company said it later observed damage to a transmission tower on the line near the town of Paradise.
(MORE: How the Camp Fire Grew So Fast)
Capt. Scott McLean of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said crews basically gave up attacking the flames and instead helped people get out alive.
“There was really no firefight involved,” he said.
By Friday morning, the fire was encroaching on the nearby city of Chico, a city of more than 90,000 residents, prompting new evacuations. The small communities of Stirling City and Inskip, north of Paradise, were also evacuated on Friday.
Officials told the Associated Press that some Paradise residents who attempted to escape the fire in their vehicles Thursday were forced to flee on foot – some holding pets and even babies in their grasp – as the flames drew closer. With few options out of Paradise, roads quickly became gridlocked, and abandoned cars left in the middle of the road only made problems worse.
"It is pure chaos up here," CHP public information officer Ryan Lambert told the Los Angeles Times.
Other towns evacuated included Centerville and Butte Creek, northwest of Paradise. Evacuations were also ordered in the nearby hamlets of Pulga and Concow.
"It’s bad," Honea told the Chico Enterprise-Record. "We’re trying to get as many people out as quickly as possible and save as many lives as we can."
In Concow, some residents, like Colton Percifield, were forced to drive through the flames and thick smoke just to survive.
"The hardest part was there was no visibility ... it was pitch black," he told The Weather Channel in a phone interview Thursday night. He also said many of the homes in his neighborhood were destroyed by the fire, but he was able to safely escape.
Authorities say they conducted numerous rescues Friday as they fought the flames, including using helicopters to rescue five people in the nearby community of Magalia.
Feather River Hospital, a retirement home and Ponderosa Elementary School in Paradise were evacuated, the Enterprise-Record also said, and Butte College was closed.
Patients in the Feather River Hospital were rescued Thursday afternoon as the roof of the emergency room went ablaze.
The rapid growth of the fire took many residents by surprise. Shary Bernacett said she and her husband "knocked on doors, yelled and screamed" to alert as many of the residents of the mobile home park they manage in Paradise just minutes before the fire arrived, she told the AP.
"My husband tried his best to get everybody out. The whole hill's on fire. God help us!" Bernacett, in tears, told the AP.
The Bernacetts managed to escape the fire with their dog but had to drive through 12-foot-high flames before reaching safety on Highway 99.
At least 24,000 homes and businesses, or about half of all customers, remained without power Sunday in Butte County, according to PowerOutage.us. Those who have safely fled the wildfire were asked to register on the American Red Cross's Safe and Well page to let friends and family know they successfully evacuated.
Acting Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency for Butte County, which will make more resources available for emergency responders.
A pair of blazes also raging in Ventura and Los Angeles counties in Southern California have forced the evacuation of thousands, including the entire city of Malibu. Statewide, more than 300,000 have been forced to evacuate because of wildfires, the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services said Friday.
President Donald Trump issued an emergency declaration providing federal funds for Butte, Ventura and Los Angeles counties, but in a Saturday morning tweet, the president threatened to withhold federal payments to California, saying the state's forest management is "so poor," but later changed his tone and said “Our hearts are with those fighting the fires."
On Sunday, Gov. Jerry Brown requested a "major disaster declaration" from Trump. According to the Associated Press, Brown's office said the declaration would bolster ongoing emergency assistance and help residents recover from the fires. If granted, the declaration would make individuals eligible for crisis counseling, housing and unemployment help, and legal aid.
Much of the Golden State had been warned about extreme fire danger because of the return of Santa Ana winds, but in Butte County, months of dry weather combined with the windy conditions created a recipe for disaster.
"Basically, we haven't had rain since last May or before that," Read told the AP. "Everything is a very receptive fuel bed. It's a rapid rate of spread."
– Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.
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