‘The whole town is gone.’ Drone video reveals the scale of fire destruction in Paradise
The Camp Fire that erupted a week ago in Butte County had two separate ignition points, Cal Fire said Thursday night, and the resulting conflagration has now killed at least 63 people and left 631 still missing.
Cal Fire gave no further details about the ignition points or cause of the blaze, which remains under investigation and is the deadliest and most destructive in state history.
So far, the blaze has burned 142,000 acres — about 221 square miles — and is 45 percent contained.
More than 52,000 people have been evacuated and 12,256 structures destroyed, 9,700 of them homes.
The developments came as the White House announced President Donald Trump plans to visit California. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long toured Paradise on Wednesday and pledged federal support for fire victims.
“The president will travel to California this Saturday to meet with individuals impacted by the wildfires,” said Lindsay Walters, Trump’s deputy press secretary.
Details of the visit are not yet available.
With hundreds of people still missing, nearly 500 searchers spread out to sift through the rubble of Paradise, Magalia and other communities devastated by the blaze.
Early Thursday, a team from El Dorado County was working at a burned home in Magalia as their first stop of the day when they discovered remains that may turn out to be multiple bodies.
“We’ve got two beds and possibly three bodies,” one volunteer searcher said as the crew moved carefully through the remnants of the house, trying not to step on nails as they maneuvered through a haze of thick smoke.
Sheriff Kory Honea later said three victims had been found in Magalia, two in a home and one outside. Three more were found in Paradise, two in a home and one in a vehicle. A seventh victim was discovered in Concow outside.
The list of missing persons has been developed from calls from people concerned about friends or relatives who have not been heard from since the fire, but the fact that they are on the list does not necessarily mean they perished.
“I want you to know, there are a lot of people displaced and ... we’re finding a lot of people don’t know that we’re looking for them,” Honea said, adding that “the level of chaos we were dealing with was extraordinary.”
A Sacramento Bee survey of names from the first list of missing persons Wednesday turned up several who are safe and had fled the area.
Honea said he will to wait to release identities of those confirmed dead until DNA testing is complete, but added authorities have tentatively identified 53 of the 63 victims. Only three names have officially been released, but many people are coming forward to say they have been told their loved ones likely perished.
Kim Erickson said she received a call from a sheriff’s deputy Thursday morning who told her that her ex-husband, Robert DuVall, had likely died in the fire.
“They found remains in the truck that matched the description” of his, she said, less than a mile from his house on Edgewood Lane in Paradise.
Erickson said she is now connecting with DuVall’s extended family, and that one of DuVall’s children will soon head to Butte County to provide DNA.
“It’s a weird, surreal feeling,” said Mike Mainieri, DuVall’s son.
DuVall was an “extremely handy” man and frequent bass fisherman, Erickson said. He moved to Paradise about 10 years ago initially to take care of his sick mother, to whom he was “devoted,” Erickson said.
“He was always tinkering, always building,” she said. “He was extremely talented in that respect.”
Other likely victims include Phyllis and Chris Salazar, said Melina Gonzalez, their granddaughter.
On Wednesday morning, the sheriff’s department called and said they had found remains of two people at their Sawmill Road house, Gonzalez said.
Their surviving children were all foster children, making the identification process more difficult.
“They did find her necklace,” Gonzalez said. She added that a sister of Chris Salazar will provide DNA soon.
The pair loved playing the card game Canasta, Gonzalez said, though her mother always said they were a couple of serial cheaters.
Gonzalez remembers her grandfather seemed to have a knack for getting family members to sneak him unhealthy treats, like the mini Snickers bar she once slipped him while he was still recovering from a stroke.
Her grandmother had a massive collection of owls — figurines, macrame, photographs — trinkets from family and friends collected over the years. Her grandmother gifted Gonzalez some: “They’re just out in my living room, the way they were in hers.”
“They were always, always together,” she said. “That’s probably how they would’ve wanted to go.”
The official number of dead is expected to continue growing as at least 461 searchers from fire departments around the state and 22 cadaver dogs dig through piles in burned out neighborhoods in Butte County.
Many of those reported missing may be on the list because they were forced to flee without their cell phones and without time to tell relatives they were leaving. Past fire disasters have seen similar instances where hundreds were reported missing but most later were found to be safe.
At one point last year during the Wine Country fires that ravaged Sonoma County, officials reported a tally of 380 missing persons. The death toll from the Tubbs Fire in Sonoma and Napa eventually totaled 22, making it the fourth deadliest fire in state history.
Despite the devastation, firefighters were making progress strengthening containment lines and a evacuation orders in a few areas near Chico were lifted Thursday afternoon.
The evacuation order for the Little Chico Creek area was downgraded to a warning, leaving the area north of Ten Mile House Road open to Forest Ranch Road.
The evacuation order for Humbug zone was lifted, opening Doe Mill Road east to Powellton Road, and the evacuation warning for the Forest Ranch zone was lifted, opening Forest Ranch Road north to Highway 36.