The horrific Camp Fire — which killed at least 85 people, destroyed 14,000 residences and charred an area the size of Chicago as it raged across Northern California — has finally been fully contained, authorities announced Sunday.
Cal Fire, the state’s forestry and fire protection agency, made the announcement after spending 17 days beating back a blaze that has burned through 153,000 acres of Butte County, north of Sacramento. Three straight days of rain helped more than 1,000 firefighters get a foothold.
But the rejoicing was muted: Authorities expect the death toll to continue to rise: 296 people are unaccounted for, the Butte County Sheriff’s Office said late Sunday, and crews are still sifting through the ash of what used to be buildings, searching for human remains.
Thousands of displaced people in shelters and hotels or camping outdoors in freezing weather face an uncertain future following the deadliest, most destructive wildfire in California history.
The fire began Nov. 8 in the Sierra Nevada foothills. High temperatures, gusty winds and parched vegetation contributed to its rapid spread.
As crews made incremental gains and Walmart parking lots became impromptu tent cities, the fire became the center of a debate about global warming.
President Trump argued that the fire spread so rapidly because of poor forest management by the state of California. He threatened — again — to remove federal funding from the state.
But state officials shot back, saying Butte County had endured its hottest years on record in the past decade. Those high temperatures had made the vegetation especially parched, officials argued, and turned Butte County into a tinderbox.
A spokesman for Gov. Jerry Brown (D) said more federal forest land has burned than state land, adding that the state has expanded its forestry budget while the Trump administration has cut its budget for forest services.
Even though the fire is contained, the nightmare is far from over for displaced residents, who face dangers as some prepare to see their homes for the first time in weeks.
Crews are working to repair power lines and clear debris from roads. Partially burned or hollowed-out trees are an ever-present threat, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Debris and ash could be toxic, full of heavy metals or carcinogens. Just sleeping at a home surrounded by ash and debris could be hazardous.
“You look up, and you see these things hanging in the trees, and now they’re blowing around real hard and fall down,” Craig Covey of the Orange County Fire Authority told NBC affiliate KCRA.
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has declared a public health emergency in the state, according to ABC News. Two hospitals and eight health facilities had to be evacuated because of wildfires.
“Temporary accommodations are being overwhelmed by overcrowding and disease,” Frances Stead Sellers, Scott Wilson and Tim Craig wrote on Monday in The Washington Post. More than 120 people have been sickened by what appears to be the highly contagious infection norovirus.
Even the rain that knocked back the fire opened up the area to new threats.
“Areas experiencing significant rainfall following a wildfire are at risk for debris flows and flash flooding,” the Butte County Sheriff’s Office warned.