In the devastating aftermath of the deadliest wildfire to hit California in 85 years, authorities are struggling with a grim task: searching for more than 200 missing people, some of whom are suspected to have been killed in a blaze that burned so hot that it melted metal.
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said late Sunday that search teams in Butte County have recovered the remains of 29 people. Most of them were found inside burned-out homes in and around the town of Paradise or in cars that were overwhelmed by fire as locals desperately tried to outrun the fast-moving flames. The sheriff said 228 people are still unaccounted for, but many of them are probably in shelters.
Still, the death toll is likely to climb. The practical challenge, Honea said, is finding the rest of the remains.
“I’ll tell you, it’s very, very hard,” he said, according to the Chico Enterprise-Record. “One of the things that I saw when I was up there is that there is so much debris in some of these areas that it’s very difficult to determine whether or not there might be human remains there.”
“In some cases,” he said, “the fire burned so intensely that it burned everything to the ground, and in some cases it melted the metal. In those cases, it is possible the temperatures were high enough to completely consume the body.”
During Sunday night’s briefing, the sheriff, who is also the county coroner, appeared to pause briefly to collect himself before announcing that the remains of six more victims had been found.
The death toll — 29 — ties the Camp Fire with the deadliest in state history, the 1933 Griffith Park wildfire in Los Angeles. The Camp Fire burned nearly 7,000 buildings and is the most destructive individual fire in state history.
By Monday morning, officials said the fire had ravaged 113,000 acres, an area roughly the size of San Jose, Calif., with just 25 percent containment. High temperatures and gusty winds made the weather optimal for the fire to spread for at least another day. Officials said it is not expected to be fully contained until Nov. 30.
Evacuation orders are still in effect for Paradise, Magalia, Concow, Butte Creek Canyon and Butte Valley. Cal Fire has released an interactive map showing the evacuation areas in the region.
On Monday evening, President Trump tweeted that he had approved an “expedited request for a Major Disaster Declaration for the State of California.”
It was Thursday evening when Sol Bechtold learned that a wildfire was raging across parts of Northern California.
Bechtold, from the San Francisco Bay area, said he grabbed the phone and called his 75-year-old mother, Joanne Caddy, who lives near Paradise in Magalia. But, he said, the phone lines were down.
He said watched live news broadcasts, which showed widespread devastation. Worried, he called the sheriff’s office and asked the deputies to go check on his mom.
“She’s been there for 52 years of my life and I felt like I could do nothing,” he said in a phone interview Monday with The Washington Post. “I felt absolutely helpless."
“I couldn’t do anything," Bechtold added. "I couldn’t get to her. I couldn’t hear her voice to know she was okay.”
Bechtold said his mother can no longer drive and does not have a car, so when the sheriff’s office told him on Saturday afternoon that her home had been destroyed, he became increasingly concerned. On Sunday, Bechtold and his wife started driving — stopping at about 15 different shelters in the area to see whether his mother might have made it there.
Bechtold said he showed other evacuees his mother’s photo and pinned up fliers on bulletin boards at the facilities.
But, he said, “we had no luck finding her.”
“Given that she’s homebound, the worst goes through your mind,” he said. “But I couldn’t believe that was the end. You have to believe that she got out and ran and someone picked her up.”
Bechtold ran thought through many scenarios — maybe she was safe in someone’s cabin or staying at a local church.
“You make up all these stories about the possibility that she’s still out there to keep the hope that she’s alive,” he told The Post. “I can’t give up. I won’t give up.”
In the wake of the devastating Camp Fire, sheriff’s deputies and officials from the coroner’s office have been searching charred homes that have been too hot for body-sniffing dogs.
The sheriff said that authorities have received more than 500 calls about friends and family members who are missing and that 107 of them have been located. However, in cases in which missing people are not found alive, he said relatives may be asked to provide a DNA sample to help authorities identify the remains. In some cases, investigators have found only bone fragments.
The victims have not been publicly identified.
Honea’s office has ordered an additional DNA lab truck and received help from two teams of anthropologists from California State University at Chico for the time-consuming and daunting task of searching for and identifying victims. An anthropology team from Nevada will join the efforts on Monday.
“What I will say is we are very early in our efforts,” the sheriff told reporters. “There is still a great deal of work to do.”
Shane Bender, from Paradise, told the Los Angeles Times on Monday that at least three of his neighbors are missing.
“I’m having a hard time grasping what happened here,” he told the newspaper. “I moved a year ago. I was just getting to know my neighbors. All good people.”
Bender added that authorities have been searching through the rubble for remains. "They park, check the address and then start walking slowly, eyeballing the broken glass and Sheetrock for telltale signs,” he told the Los Angeles Times.
The Camp Fire started early Thursday morning near Pulga, a small community surrounded by the Plumas National Forest. High winds and low humidity fueled the flames. The fire engulfed Paradise, a forest town of 27,000 people about 90 miles north of the state capital, Sacramento, which is popular with retirees.
Paradise, which is quarantined, is without power and has no operational businesses. It has essentially been destroyed.
More than 500 miles away in Southern California, another blaze, the Woolsey Fire, began in a canyon of that name near the city of Simi Valley. It spread primarily through open terrain with few trees and a great deal of waist-high and knee-high shrubs and grasses. By Monday morning, officials said it had burned 91,000 acres with just 20 percent containment. It has killed at least two people.
A lull in the wind Saturday gave firefighters a chance to create firebreaks and drop massive amounts of fire retardant, but officials Sunday were anxious about a re-energized Woolsey Fire and the kind of weather that can create a new, uncontrollable wildfire almost anywhere in tinder-dry California.
"We’re in a new abnormal. Things like this will be part of our future,” Gov. Jerry Brown (D) said at a news conference. “Things like this and worse.” He repeatedly cited climate change as a factor and said those who deny it are complicit in the disasters.
“The chickens are coming home to roost. This is real here,” the governor said.
Achenbach reported from Thousand Oaks, Calif.