Death toll jumps to 23 as ‘challenging’ Camp Fire pushes toward Lake Oroville

The death toll from the still-unchecked Camp Fire has reached 23, making it the third deadliest wildfire in California history, officials said Saturday night.

The grim milestone came as firefighters dug in on the fire’s southern edge amid expected high winds that could swing flames toward the city of Oroville.

“We’re still at the very, very front end of this incident,” said Todd Durham, a Cal Fire division chief who is a unified commander for the Camp Fire. “We may have very, very challenging times to come.”

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said the remains of 10 more victims have been found in the town of Paradise in addition to the nine already reported. Seven of the newly-discovered fatalities were found in homes and three were located outdoors. Honea said the remains of four more people were recovered in Concow, a few miles east of Magalia – two in their cars, two inside homes.

Honea said the remains would be brought to the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office. The state Department of Justice is sending DNA investigators to take genetic samples from survivors to help identify victims, he said. With some bodies burned to bone, Honea said he did not have an estimate on how long it might be before the dead can be identified.

Honea said his department had taken more than 120 reports of missing people. Fifty people remained unaccounted for Saturday after many of the missing were located by deputies, the majority of them found in evacuation centers and shelters, he said.

The Camp Fire also has injured three firefighters and destroyed nearly 6,500 homes, making it the most destructive fire in the state’s history.

Honea said in Saturday’s fire update news conference that the city of Oroville itself, population 20,000, is “not in imminent danger” but that homes northeast of the town, closer to Lake Oroville, are threatened.

Northeastern winds of up to 50 miles per hour were expected to pick up around 8 p.m. Saturday, Cal Fire spokesman Kevin Tidwell said. He could not estimate the fire’s likelihood to reach Oroville.

“That is a potential threat, and we’re trying to mitigate that,” Tidwell said. “It’ll be similar wind conditions to when the fire first started, and with a significant wind event like that, our crews are worried about (the fire’s) potential to spread.”

Throughout Saturday, fire officials and the Butte County Sheriff’s Office ordered more residents to evacuate or be ready to leave as the fire grew largely unchecked to 105,000 acres (164 square miles), Cal Fire said in a 6 p.m. update.

Those areas included the communities of Berry Creek, Brush Creek, Mountain House and Bloomer Hill, above Lake Oroville.

Evacuation orders are also in place for Magalia, Concow, Butte Creek Canyon and Butte Valley, as well as several specific roads. Residents of Oroville, who fled when the town dam threatened to burst in February 2017, have been operating a shelter at Church of the Nazarene for their Butte County neighbors since Thursday.

In all, more than 50,000 people have been displaced by the fire and evacuations.

The National Weather Service issued a Fire Weather Watch for the Sacramento Valley and Sierra foothills from 10 p.m. Saturday through 7 a.m. Monday, and a Red Flag Warning through Monday for the coastal mountains of Northern California and large portions of the Bay Area.

At 20 percent containment as of Saturday evening, the Camp Fire is not expected to be fully contained until the end of November. At its 6 p.m. update, Cal Fire held the number of homes destroyed at 6,453 and the number of commercial and other structures at 260 – it said it expected to have updated numbers Sunday as its investigators continued to survey the Paradise area.

More than 4,000 fire personnel were fighting the blaze, including 67 hand crews and 67 bulldozers digging lines to try to stop its spread. It’s one of six active fires burning in California.

“We’ve been in rescuer mode of saving (human) lives and saving animals, and we’re still doing that, but we’re also doing fire suppression work as well now,” Tidwell said.

Crews from other parts of the country are joining the battle, including more than 100 firefighters and 20 engines from Washington’s Department of Natural Resources.

The fire’s fury has been felt far beyond Butte County.

Smoke has blanketed most of the Sacramento Valley in a dense, reddish din – causing multiple events to be canceled, including Saturday night’s football game between Sacramento State and Northern Arizona University. Sunday’s Veterans Day parade in Sacramento was also canceled due to poor air quality.

UC Davis Medical Center said Friday it was treating at least 8 burn victims from Butte County, three of whom are in critical condition.

Other burn victims – as well as those evacuated from the damaged Adventist Health Feather River Medical Center – are being treated at Enloe Medical Center in Chico, Oroville Hospital and Rideout Regional Medical Center in Marysville.

The Camp Fire began at 6:29 a.m. Thursday near the intersection of Pulga and Camp Creek roads outside Paradise. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. told state officials Thursday that one of the company’s power lines suffered an outage at about that time.

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