Natural disasters

California fire missing more than doubles to 631, while death toll hits 63

  • Search teams continue to poke through rubble looking for human remains in towns devastated by the massive blaze
PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 November, 2018, 11:31am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 November, 2018, 8:31pm

The number of people listed as missing in one of California’s deadliest wildfires has skyrocketed past 600, authorities said on Thursday, as the remains of seven more victims were found by rescuers.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said the number of missing had more than doubled during the day to 631 as investigators went back and checked emergency calls made when the fire broke out a week ago.

“I want you to understand that the chaos we were dealing with was extraordinary” when the fire started, he told journalists, in explaining the new number.

The seven additional victims brings to 63 the number of people who have died in the so-called Camp Fire in northern California.

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

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

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.

In pictures: wildfire rages in northern California

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. An army of firefighters, many from distant states, were still trying to contain and suppress the flames. The fire was 40 per cent contained, but there was no timeline for allowing evacuees to return because of the danger. Power queues are still down, roads closed, and firefighters are still dousing embers, authorities said.

California fires: in the ashes of Paradise, they sift for the victims with sieves

Some 52,000 people were displaced to shelters, the homes of friends and relatives, to motels – and to a Walmart car park and an adjacent field in Chico, a dozen miles away from the ashes.

At vast shelter car park, evacuees from California’s deadliest fire wonder if they still have homes, if their neighbours are still alive – and where they will go when their place of refuge shuts down in a matter of days.

“It’s cold and scary,” said Lilly Batres, 13, one of the few children there, who fled with her family from the forested town of Magalia and did not know whether her home survived. “I feel like people are going to come into our tent.”

More than 75 tents had popped up in the space since Matthew Flanagan arrived last Friday.

“We call it Wally World,” Flanagan said, a riff off the store name. “When I first got here, there was nobody here. And now it’s just getting worse and worse and worse. There are more evacuees, more people running out of money for hotels.”

Word began to spread on Thursday that efforts were being made to phase out the camp by Sunday by gradually removing donated clothing, food and toilets.

“The ultimate goal is to get these people out of tents, out of their cars and into warm shelter, into homes,” said Jessica Busick, who was among the first volunteers when she and her husband started serving free food from their Truckaroni food truck last week. “We’ve always known this isn’t a long-term solution.”

Some evacuees helped sort immense piles of donations that have poured in. Racks of used clothes from jumpers to plaid flannel shirts and tables covered with neatly organised pairs of boots, trainers and shoes competed for space with shopping trolleys full of clothes, garbage bags stuffed with other donations, boxes of books, stuffed animals – yellow, purple and green teddy bears and a menagerie of other fuzzy critters – sitting on the pavement.

Food trucks offered free meals and a cook flipped burgers on a grill. There were portable toilets, and some people used the Walmart restrooms.

Melissa Contant, who drove from the San Francisco area to help out, advised people to register with the Federal Emergency Management Agency as soon as possible and not to reveal too much information about whether they own or rent homes or if they have sufficient food and water, because that could delay aid.

“You’re living in a Walmart parking lot – you’re not OK,” she told a couple.

At the other end of the state, meanwhile, more residents were being allowed back into the zone of a wildfire that torched an area the size of Denver west of Los Angeles. The fire was 62 per cent contained after destroying nearly 550 homes and other buildings. At least three deaths were reported.

President Donald Trump is set to visit California on Saturday to meet victims of the wildfires believed to be the worst in the state’s history.

Additional reporting by Reuters and Associated Press