Northern California fire death toll at 56; 130 missing

Northern California fire death toll at 56; 130 missing
Troops sift through ruins as California wildfire death toll rises to 56
The wildfire situation in California is now the deadliest in the state's history, with at least 50 people killed, more than 100 missing or unaccounted for and the town of Paradise almost entirely destroyed.

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."

While theres still work to be done to fix their home, Weldon already has his sights set on a bigger project – rebuilding Paradise.

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.

This is a beautiful community, Weldon said. People are very strong, very loving. And well put it back together.

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."

Weldons home is one of the only buildings still standing, after he wetted the house to protect it from the fire.

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.

Brad Weldon looks over the destruction the Camp wildfire caused near his home in Paradise, California.

Authorities fear that in the crush to flee the fast-approaching flames, some elderly residents may have been left behind.

While many celebrities have been telling their followers where to donate, some have been publicly giving their own money to different organizations. Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth lost their Malibu home last week, then donated $500,000 to the Malibu Foundation on Tuesday to be used for “those in financial need, emergency relief assistance, community rebuilding, wildfire prevention, and climate change resilience,” as their statement reads. Sandra Bullock donated $100,000 to the Humane Society of Ventura County to assist their animal rescue efforts on Tuesday. And Twilight actress Ashley Greene banned together with friends in October to establish a charity fund and donate $50,000 to the Santa Rosa Health Care Center. (Greene lost her dog in a 2013 apartment fire caused by a lit candle and has also been fundraising for organizations that rescue animals during wildfires.)

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.

WATCH BELOW: Officials confirm 130 people are ‘unaccounted’ for as firefighting efforts continue

With California projected to experience more frequent and deadly wildfires in the future, the issue has emerged as a powerful flashpoint that will continue to force cultural figures off the sidelines and put Republicans, especially Trump, in the hot seat. And it highlights important issues around the unequal impact climate change has on people of different income levels. While raising awareness on social media is the most common contribution celebrities have made so far, there are also leaders emerging taking extra steps, developing ties with environmental organizations, and lending their social capital and resources to the issue.

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.

Wildfires are tearing through parts of northern and southern California, leaving dozens (if not hundreds) of casualties and thousands of destroyed homes in their wake. The locations of the two most devastating fires—the Camp Fire northeast of Sacramento and the Woolsey Fire near Malibu—happen to encompass parts of the state where many rich and famous residents own property. People of all backgrounds and tax brackets have lost their homes to the blaze, of course, but much of the media coverage and social media chatter about the wildfires has focused on the plight of celebrities.

Given the scale of the destruction in Paradise, some residents are weighing whether they can ever return.

Kim Kardashian and Kanye West got flack for reportedly hiring private firefighters to protect their $60 million home, drawing attention to the fact that the wealthy can afford to opt out of climate chaos while normal people get screwed. The power couple did earn the praise of some of their wealthy neighbors, however, who told TMZ the hired firefighters saved their homes, as well.

“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.

The lot has become a de facto refugee camp as those who have lost everything seek the most basic of necessities: a place to be. Exactly how long people will stay there is an unsettling and unanswered question in Butte County. In a region already plagued by a severe shortage of homes and apartments, the Camp Fire may usher a massive housing shortage, potentially leaving thousands of fire victims homeless for months or even years.

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.”

Housing was already scarce in Butte County before the Camp Fire. The housing vacancy rate was less than 2 percent, which is considered a crisis state, Mayer said. And unlike wealthier Sonoma County, where fires destroyed thousands of homes last year, many residents of Paradise dont have the financial means to rebuild their homes quickly.

“We still have conditions that could produce new and damaging fires,” he said. “We are not letting out eye off this ball at all.”

The federal government still cannot say exactly what type of emergency housing may be made available to victims of the Camp Fire, or when that determination will be made, but the major emergency declaration signed by President Donald Trump on Monday allows for federal aid to begin pouring into the state.

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 county has the capacity to place 800 to 1,000 households in permanent housing, Mayer said, but its short-term options are overwhelmed. Officials have offered no timetable for when residents will be allowed back to their homes, if theyre lucky enough to have a home still standing.

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.

Big picture, we have 6,000, possibly 7,000 households who have been displaced and who realistically dont stand a chance of finding housing again in Butte County, Mayer said. I dont even know if these households can be absorbed in California.

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.

Thomas Tenorio, chief executive officer of the Community Action Agency of Butte County, which operates shelters, housing and other services for low-income residents, said theres going to be a lot of folks in shelter for a very long time.

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.

People go right next to you, not respecting that were sleeping in our vehicles – not respecting that we dont have nothing no more, Cuen said of this haphazard community of survivors that has taken shape in recent days.

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.

Were on the edge, said Ed Mayer, the executive director of the countys housing agency, when asked if the county was facing a humanitarian crisis.

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.

READ MORE: Robin Thicke, Gerard Butler among celebrities who lost their homes in California wildfires

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.