The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘It is not safe.’ California wildfires continue deadly assault on populated areas.

A neighborhood devastated by the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif. As of Sunday, the death toll from the major fire was at 29, with many people still missing. (Mason Trinca/For The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — As authorities on Sunday continued to search for bodies in the destroyed Northern California town of Paradise, fire weather returned to Southern California, with parched air pouring down from the mountains and generating flare-ups from the historic Woolsey Fire.

DC-10 air tankers fought the wind gusts to drop bright-red flame retardant on rugged, unburned terrain as the fire invaded canyons where California meets the Pacific Ocean. At midday Sunday, the combined efforts of several thousand firefighters seemed to have the Woolsey Fire, now a protracted disaster, in check.

But the red-flag warnings — critical fire conditions — were forecast to last across the region until 5 p.m. Tuesday.

Fire chiefs had warned that the dreaded Santa Ana winds would be back around 10 a.m. Sunday, and they were right. The winds kicked up just as officials were holding a news conference warning that conditions remained dangerous. As they spoke, a massive plume of smoke rose in the southern sky from the direction of Malibu.

The Woolsey Fire had burned 83,000 acres by Sunday morning, with just 10 percent containment. The 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 an entirely new, uncontrollable wildfire almost anywhere in tinder-dry California.

In Northern California, the Camp Fire, which wiped out Paradise, has been blamed for 29 deaths, with five more bodies discovered in homes Sunday and another in a vehicle. That death toll 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 California history.

Two fast-moving wildfires continue to burn through Southern California, forcing more than 100,000 to flee. (Video: The Washington Post)

Sheriff’s deputies and officials from the coroner’s office have been examining charred homes that have been too hot for body-sniffing dogs. Butte County Sheriff Kory L. Honea said late Sunday that authorities were trying to account for 228 people reported missing by friends or family members. Honea said some may be in shelters. He urged citizens to tell authorities if and when they find a person who had been unaccounted for.

Some of the victims died in their cars as they attempted to escape. Authorities have not released the names of victims, and Paradise, a city of 27,000 popular with retirees, is quarantined. The city is without power and has no operational businesses, and few residents have returned. Paradise has been essentially obliterated.

Honea’s office has ordered an additional DNA lab truck and received help from anthropologists at California State University at Chico for the time-consuming and daunting task of identifying victims. In some cases, investigators have found just pieces of bone.

Although the fire had been 25 percent contained by Sunday, high temperatures and gusty winds made the weather optimal for the Northern California fire to spread for at least another day.

President Trump alternated between offering sympathy for displaced people and firefighters and lashing out at California’s leaders over what he deemed poor forest management.

“With proper Forest Management, we can stop the devastation constantly going on in California. Get Smart!” he tweeted Sunday morning, echoing a refrain that he has frequently leveled at California officials — including on Saturday — and threatening to withhold federal money.

Officials shot back that increasingly destructive fires are a result of global warming, which has led to weather that dries out vegetation and turns large swaths of grassland into a tinderbox.

The Woolsey Fire began in a canyon of that name near the city of Simi Valley, and it spread primarily through open terrain with few trees and a great deal of waist-high and knee-high shrubs and grasses.

“We’re in a new abnormal. Things like this will be part of our future,” Gov. Jerry Brown (D) said at an afternoon 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,” Brown said.

Brown had earlier requested a Presidential Major Disaster Declaration, which would make the hardest-hit communities eligible for housing, unemployment and other support programs and allow state and local governments to repair or replace fire-damaged facilities and infrastructure. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has granted a state request for emergency aid.

The Woolsey Fire has been linked to two deaths, both still under investigation, and its effects have been broad.

“We’re concerned about the fire jumping out, coming behind us, burning a lot of the territory that has not burned,” Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said.

He said the footprint of the Woolsey Fire contains many unburned areas that are vulnerable to embers stoked by wind gusts that could reach 45 mph. The immediate concern was that the fire would be pushed by the Santa Ana winds south along the Pacific Coast, from Malibu to Topanga Canyon and on to Pacific Palisades and the doorstep of Santa Monica.

“The only thing we’re not concerned about is the ocean,” Osby said.

On Sunday afternoon, he was somewhat more upbeat, saying firefighters had had “some huge successes” in suppressing flare-ups over the course of the day.

The officials pounded home a warning to residents: Don’t go back into the mandatory evacuation zones. Stay away.

“Please, please do not come back to our city yet,” said Illece Buckley-Weber, a city council member in Agoura Hills. “It is not safe.”

Many residents have been standing their ground, refusing to evacuate and saying they will defend their property. Fire officials want them out of the way because of the scale of the response and the need to use heavy equipment and fire hoses. They point out that embers can fly a mile from the front edge of a fire and trap people amid the flames. And these fires are hard to outrun because they have been whipped by heavy winds.

“The Santa Ana wind conditions are no different than the tornadoes or the massive flood conditions we see in the East,” said Nick Schuler, a Cal Fire deputy chief, as he looked at the billowing cloud of smoke over Malibu. “You can’t outrun a tornado.”

Despite those warnings, people have drifted home to mandatory evacuation zones, some fearing looters, though only a couple of arrests have been made, officials said.

“I’ve been evacuated twice. So I totally understand the heartache and the stress,” said Chief John Benedict of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. “Please, please be patient with us.”

The twin disasters in Northern and Southern California have provided a reminder that climate change is altering the basic equations of fire suppression. When Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen stopped in the morning to visit one of his firefighters at home, he noticed a plant burning in the yard. It was an ice plant. It’s a succulent that’s supposed to be fire-resistant.

“Ice plant is not supposed to burn,” Lorenzen said at a news conference. “We’re entering a new normal. Things are not the way they were 10 years ago. . . . The rate of spread is exponentially more than it used to be.”

And local officials are looking toward the next potential consequence of the wildfires as winter rains loom — the shadow disaster of mudslides.

“We’re going to find ourselves really quickly after this in mudslide territory,” warned Henry Stern, a state senator who represents Malibu and Thousand Oaks. “The fire ripped right through the root stock. There’s nothing left to hold those hillsides together.”

Wootson reported from Washington. Mason Trinca in Paradise, Calif., contributed to this report.