But the footage coming out of affected communities tells an unexpected story, says a U.S. fire expert — one that could have lessons for wildfire prevention measures.
More than 7,000 buildings were destroyed by the Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in Californias history. Many of the 52,000 residents forced to flee will not have anything left to come back to.
Jack Cohen, a retired U.S. Forest Service scientist, focuses his research on investigating how homes ignite during extreme wildfires and how fires move through communities.
My mom said, Nuh-uh, I aint leaving. Shes 90 years old and blind, Weldon told CTV News. She said, I aint going anywhere. Leave me here, Ill burn up.
He says fireproofing individual homes may be the most critical part of preventing the spread of wildfires.
"Our perception is that this wall of fire comes through and destroys everything, and yet what I'm seeing is that there couldn't have been a wall of fire," Cohen told Stephen Quinn, the host of CBC's The Early Edition.
Although Weldon and his mother no longer have water or electricity, Weldon says hes rigged up a pump to supply the house with water from their swimming pool.
"The thing that would have carried the wall of fire is still there: The trees are still there and the structures are destroyed."
Officials Limited Evacuation Orders as Camp Fire Spread, Citing Other Safety Concerns
Instead of a wall of flames descending, burning embers blow downwind and ignite many spot fires over a wide area.
That's also why, from the photos coming out of the damaged communities, it looks almost as though there were hundreds of individual house fires rather than one fire sweeping through the entire town.
Removing clutter around homes that could become combustible is crucial, he said, and making sure there is nothing touching a structure that could ignite it.
Refusing to leave her behind, Weldon got to work hosing down the home, trying to save their property and their lives.
"We make sure that we have no debris on the structure. We make sure that nothing can burn … within the first metre to metre-and-a-half [of the house]," he said.
Instead of fleeing the blaze, Weldon and his mother chose to stay, and somehow they survived along with their home.
"Don't just look at destroyed structures," Cohen said. "Look at the area around the destroyed structures and what you see is unconsumed vegetation."
Instead, he suggested, keep a 30 metre buffer around buildings by clearing debris and surface fuels like old firewood, twigs and dried grasses.
Weldon says that with a change of wind, and angels here to watch us, he and his mother escaped death.
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U.S. National Guard troops fanned out to scour the ruins of the devastated town of Paradise on Thursday for remains of victims as 130 people remained listed as missing in California’s deadliest wildfire on record, whose death toll has risen to 56. The “Camp Fire” blaze last Thursday incinerated the Sierra foothills town, once home to 27,000 people. Most of the missing in and around Paradise, which lies about 175 miles (280 km) north of San Francisco, are aged over 65.
Authorities fear that in the crush to flee the fast-approaching flames, some elderly residents may have been left behind.
The surface area of the fire had grown to 138,000 acres (56,000 hectares) by late Wednesday evening, even as diminished winds and rising humidity helped firefighters shore up containment lines around more than a third of the perimeter.
The National Guard contingent, 50 military police officers, has joined dozens of search-and-recovery workers and at least 22 cadaver dogs.
Food Network star Guy Fieri made headlines by feeding emergency workers battling the Camp Fire on Sunday, following the lead of a number of restaurants in the area giving out free meals. This wasnt Fieris first time cooking for police and firefighters. In mid-October, his team set up a makeshift kitchen outside a Veterans Memorial Building where he reportedly served 5,000 people a day. This time, he cooked a series of surprise meals for first responders and teamed up with fellow celebrity chef José Andrés to cook 1,000 meals over the weekend. Food Networks Tyler Florence (The Food Truck Race) also joined in on the action. Celebrities with less official culinary expertise followed suit, like Foo Fighters lead singer Dave Grohl, who barbecued for firefighters in Calabasas on Monday night.
More than 9,000 firefighters and other personnel from many U.S. states are fighting the Camp Fire and the “Woolsey Fire” hundreds of miles to the south.
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Paradise’s ghostly expanse of empty lots covered in ash and strewn with twisted wreckage and debris made a strong impression on Governor Jerry Brown, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and other officials who toured the devastation on Wednesday and were due to visit the scene of the Woolsey Fire on Thursday.
Given the scale of the destruction in Paradise, some residents are weighing whether they can ever return.
“At this point, Im taking it day-to-day,” Jeff Hill, who has been staying with relatives in nearby Chico since his home burned down, told NBC News. “There are no stores left, no restaurants, nothing.”
At an evacuation center south of Paradise in Oroville that is so full that some people are sleeping in cars or tents, Nanette Benson, said her future is uncertain.
Paradise’s police department has stepped up patrols of the remains of the town after arresting three people on chargers of looting. Then department is reliant on equipment from other police departments and is running off a generator, Sergeant Steve Bertagna told KRCR TV.
The blaze, fueled by thick, drought-desiccated scrub, has capped two back-to-back catastrophic wildfire seasons in California that scientists largely attribute to prolonged drought that is symptomatic of climate change.
Authorities attributed the high number of casualties to the staggering speed with which the fire struck Paradise. Wind-driven flames roared through town so swiftly that residents were forced to flee for their lives.
Although the high winds that fueled the fires have eased, Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), told reporters late Wednesday that vegetation around the Camp Fire remained “critically dry.”
“We still have conditions that could produce new and damaging fires,” he said. “We are not letting out eye off this ball at all.”
Lawyers for some wildfire victims claimed in a lawsuit filed this week that lax equipment maintenance by an electric utility caused the fire, which officially remains under investigation.
The Butte County disaster coincided with blazes in Southern California, especially the Woolsey Fire, which has killed at least two people, destroyed more than 500 structures and displaced 200,000 people west of Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said the body of a possible third victim was found. Cal Fire officials said that blaze was 52 percent contained as of Wednesday night.
The remains of eight more fire victims were found on Wednesday, raising the official number of fatalities to 56, nearly double the previous record from a single wildfire in California – 29 people killed by the Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles in 1933.
The Camp Fire also stands as one of the deadliest U.S. wildfires since the turn of the last century. More than 80 people perished in the Big Burn firestorm that swept the northern Rockies in August 1910, consuming 3 million acres.
These are folks who arent ready to call themselves victims, he said. Theyre survivors and theyre trying to figure it out one day at a time.
When I say downtown I mean Paradise, said Pohmagevich, who opted to stay in Magalia even as fire closed in.
Pohmagevich, an 18-year Magalia resident who works at Timber Ridge Real Estate and lives just up the road from many burned homes, said he stayed to protect his employers property from looters and to prepare some cabins and mobile homes so business tenants can live if they come back.
Local officials warned the destruction from the Camp Fire could set off a wave of refugee migration akin to a smaller version of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
A week after the deadly Camp Fire struck, police teams drive around Magalia searching for those still in their homes, checking if they need any food and water. Crews from Pacific Gas & Electric are also in the area. With the death toll at 56, it is the deadliest wildfire in a century. There were also three fatalities from separate blazes in Southern California.
WATCH BELOW: California wildfire victims file lawsuit against gas and electric company over blaze’s origin
As officials raised the loss of homes to nearly 8,800 Wednesday, Sheriff Kory Honea said the task of recovering remains had become so vast that his office brought in another 287 searchers Wednesday, including National Guard troops, bringing the total number of searchers to 461 plus 22 cadaver dogs. He said a rapid-DNA assessment system was expected to be in place soon to speed up identifications of the dead, though officials have tentatively identified 47 of the 56.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke joined California Gov. Jerry Brown Wednesday on a visit to the nearby leveled town of Paradise, telling reporters it was the worst fire devastation he had ever seen.
Now is not the time to point fingers, Zinke said. There are lots of reasons these catastrophic fires are happening. He cited warmer temperatures, dead trees and the poor forest management.
Brown, a frequent critic of U.S. President Donald Trumps policies, said he spoke with Trump, who pledged federal assistance.
This is so devastating that I dont really have the words to describe it, Brown said, saying officials would need to learn how to better prevent fires from becoming so deadly.
It will take years to rebuild, if people decide thats what should be done, said Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
While most of the town of Paradise was wiped out, in Magalia, a sharp dividing line marks those that survived and those that did not.
Magalia has so many trees. I honestly cant believe it just didnt get leveled, said Sheri Palade, an area real estate agent.
Tom Driver, the office manager and elder at Magalia Community Church, said he had heard the church survived the blaze, though he did not know the status of his own home.
Ive been able to account for all of the congregation, said Driver, who is staying with family in Oakland. Theyre all over the place but they got out in pretty good time.
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Driver said many residents of Magalia work at the university in Chico or out of their homes. When the blaze spread into Paradise, residents there drove down and faced horrendous traffic. Driver said he and some others in Magalia were able to escape north on a winding narrow road that put them ahead of the fire, not behind it.
Kim Bonini heard someone on a bullhorn two blocks over on Thursday urging people to leave. The power in her home had gone out that morning, leaving her only with her car radio to tell her if she needed to leave.
My cell didnt work, my house phone didnt work, nothing. Nothing except for me crawling into my car, Bonini said from her daughters home in Chico on Wednesday. If I wouldnt have heard them two blocks down I wouldnt have known I had to evacuate.
The cause of the fire remained under investigation, but it broke out around the time and place that a utility reported equipment trouble.