image image

United States

Paradise loss: death toll hits 23 as 250,000 flee worst fires in California history

  • Charred remains of 14 more victims found in and around Paradise, a northern California town overrun by flames
  • President Trump fans ongoing dispute with California leaders, blaming mismanagement of state resources for the destruction and death
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 November, 2018, 7:08am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 November, 2018, 11:04pm

Firefighters battled raging blazes at both ends of drought-stricken California on Sunday, with the death toll rising to at least 23 and strong winds and dry conditions forecast.

The largest fires were in Butte County, a scenic area in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains north of Sacramento, and the Los Angeles area, where two deaths possibly related to a fire were reported.

Acrid smoke from the fire covered the sky for miles, almost blocking the sun. On the ground, cars caught in flames were reduced to metal frames, while power lines were gnawed by the fire.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said late on Saturday 14 more bodies had been found, taking the number of fatalities of the “Camp Fire” to 23.

In pictures: wildfire rages in northern California

Mandatory evacuation orders were issued for more than 52,000 people in the area.

In the town of Paradise more than 6,700 buildings – including a hospital, a service station and several restaurants – were consumed by fire.

Rescuers removed human remains over several hours and placed them in a black hearse. Charred body parts were put in buckets, while intact remains were carried in body bags.

At the Holly Hills Mobile Estate, mobile homes were reduced to smouldering piles of debris. Yellow police tape marked spots tagged “Doe C” and “Doe D,” suggesting bodies were found there.

Locals fled the danger, but police said some farmers returned to check on their cattle.

Fanned by strong winds, the blaze has so far scorched 40,500 hectares (100,000 acres) and is 20 per cent contained, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said. So far, three of the more than 3,200 firefighters deployed have been injured.

They estimate they will need three weeks to contain the blaze.

Local power authorities told state officials there was an outage near the spot where the fire erupted, The Sacramento Bee reported, but there is no official cause of the Camp Fire blaze.

US President Donald Trump drew criticism for a seemingly unsympathetic reaction to the devastation.

“There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor,” he tweeted. “Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”

Brian Rice, head of the California Professional Firefighters, slammed the tweet as “ill-informed, ill-timed and demeaning to those who are suffering as well as the men and women on the front lines”.

Trump later showed more sympathy. “Our hearts are with those fighting the fires,” as well as the evacuees and families of the victims, he tweeted. “God Bless them all.”

But he appeared to reverse course again on Sunday, tweeting: “With proper Forest Management, we can stop the devastation constantly going on in California. Get Smart!”

In southern California, more wildfires burned, including one just north of Los Angeles and another in Ventura County near Thousand Oaks.

‘The wind is apocalyptic’: one couple’s midnight flight from wildfires raging in California

The Woolsey Fire destroyed at least 177 structures and was five per cent contained, Cal Fire said late on Saturday. Evacuation orders had been issued for some 88,000 homes in Ventura County and neighbouring Los Angeles County.

Woolsey fire: celebrities await word of fate of homes as Malibu burns

The wildfire reached Paramount Ranch, destroying the Western Town sets used for hundreds of productions including HBO’S sci-fi western Westworld, network officials said.

Firefighters got a respite from the strong winds on Saturday, and Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said aircraft were deployed to drop fire retardants to strengthen the fire lines.

Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen however had a warning: “Don’t be lulled by a false sense of security.”

Strong winds are expected until Tuesday across the region – strong enough to rapidly spread flames in unexpected directions, officials said.