The voracious Camp Fire that ran rampant through Butte County’s hilly towns last week has officially stamped itself as the most merciless in state history, and left forensics experts with a grisly chore in the weeks ahead — finding and identifying those who perished.
Officials reported Sunday night that the death toll has reached 29, making it the deadliest California fire in 85 years. The Camp Fire has also destroyed 6,700 buildings, making it the most destructive blaze in state history measured by loss of structures. Most of the damage and death occurred in the town of Paradise, just east of Chico, which was almost entirely consumed by flames on Thursday.
The death toll, which increased by six on Sunday, equals the death toll from the 1933 Griffith Fire in Los Angeles as the worst mass-casualty wildland fire ever in the state. The Oakland hills Tunnel Fire in 1991 caused 25 deaths.
The fire slowed some on Sunday, but officials said the risk of flaring remains high and winds are once again a threat overnight.
As 4,000-plus firefighters dug battle lines in the hills, hoping to quell the fire’s advance amid windy conditions, ten “mass casualty” search teams from around the state stepped up the grisly task of sifting through razed homes and peering into charred vehicles looking for victims’ remains.
All weekend, officials said they expected more bad news on the body count. “We are bracing for more fatalities,” Office of Emergency Services official Mark Pazin warned.
As of Sunday evening, 228 residents of the hills remain unaccounted for days after the fire first rained embers down on the towns of Paradise, Magalia and Concow, igniting home after home, forcing frantic evacuations on narrow mountain roads. The Butte County Sheriff’s Department has received more than 500 calls about missing persons, said Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea.
A number of those unaccounted for may be in shelters, Honea said.
Honea said search crews are concentrating first in areas that had extensive damage or where authorities have received reports of missing people. The search is complicated by debris, including rows of burned vehicles, left abandoned on roads.
He said in some areas the fire burned so hot that there may be no human remains left, or just pieces of bone. No victim identifications had been formally released as of Sunday evening. Investigators were bringing in DNA testing equipment to help with the task.
Some areas were still burning and unsafe for rescuers to enter Sunday, Honea said. His goal, he said, is to get answers as soon as possible to people who are missing loved ones.
“This is my community,” he said.
Tens of thousands remained evacuated Sunday night, including residents of Paradise, population 27,000, who jammed centers in Chico, Oroville and other areas, or stayed with relatives in the area.
Evacuees told tales of receiving warnings via text alerts and rushing to their cars only to find themselves immediately in stalled traffic as thousands tried to escape town on its two main roads. Officials turned both Skyway and Clark Road into one-way routes into the valley, but cars nonetheless backed up for miles.
Smoke-filled skies made it appear as though it were midnight. At times, escaping drivers ran a gauntlet of burning trees on both sides of the road.
“It was terrifying,” Paradise resident Kelly Angel said. “There were flames behind us. People were abandoning their cars and running. People were driving erratically because of the flames right behind us.”
She said it took her six hours to reach Skyway from her house, a drive that normally takes no more than eight minutes.
“I thought I was going to die,” Angel said. “I was on the phone with my dad and crying, telling him my car was going to burn up. It was terrifying.”
At Adventist Health Feather River Hospital, workers hurriedly shuttled patients into private vehicles to escape the oncoming flames. At one point, when it appeared the hospital might be consumed, doctors and nurses pushed hospital equipment out to an already scorched helicopter pad as a temporary triage center. The fire surrounded the area, but did not burn the main hospital.
Paradise Mayor Jody Jones said the fire first ignited houses dotted throughout the of town when it was still two miles away, throwing embers far ahead of its advance.
City officials had an evacuation plan and even had practiced it once during a morning commute, but the plan was based on evacuating residents in sequence, one section of town at a time, Jones said. With the fire hitting all parts of town, the entire community was forced to evacuate at once, and the the roads were “overwhelmed,” she said.
The good news Sunday was that the fire had slowed its furious pace overnight, amid some gusting winds.
Containment increased from 25 percent overnight. The cities of Oroville and Chico were on alert over the weekend as the fire briefly made a run toward them, but both had escaped damage as of Sunday night.
The National Weather Service maintained a “red flag” or fire-spread warning Sunday night through early Monday morning, due to expected wind gusts up to 40 miles per hour. The growth is dry because the area has not had rain for 210 days, the agency said. Winds, though, are expected to die down Monday about 7 a.m.
“The winds will give (firefighters) a break, but no rain in sight,” at least until Thanksgiving, meteorologist Johnnie Powell said.
Fire officials said the primary goal continues to be cutting fire lines around the 111,000-acre blaze.
On Sunday, Gov. Jerry Brown requested a presidential major disaster declaration to bolster the ongoing emergency response and help residents recover from the fires in Los Angeles and Ventura as well as Butte counties.
At a press conference on Sunday evening, Brown linked the state’s deadly fire season to global warming, telling reporters that governments should be prepared to spend tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars in the next decade to reduce the risk of more tragedies.
“We have a real challenge here threatening our whole way of life,” he said.
“It will be things like this and worse,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important to help communities and do prevention and adaptions where we can,” he added.
President Donald Trump stirred controversy earlier in the weekend by tweeting that California officials are to blame for poor forest management. He threatened “no more federal payments” if the state doesn’t get its house in order.
That led to a retort from the California governor: “Managing all the forests everywhere we can does not stop climate change, and those who deny that definitely are contributing to the tragedies that we are witnessing and will continue to witness. The chickens are coming home to roost.”
The number of missing continued to be fluid and confused throughout the weekend. Officials, who received hundreds of calls, said many people reported missing have been located by deputies at shelters and evacuation centers.
The missing people were on evacuees’ minds Sunday morning at the Oroville Nazarene Church, an evacuation center in Oroville.
“We lost a few people up there,” said Desmond David, leaning against his Jeep Cherokee. “We don’t know who yet.”
The church parking lot was scattered with tents, mobile homes and men and women sitting by their vehicles beside their dogs. Many of the evacuees were wrapped in blankets and coats in the chilly breeze.
David said he lost his home in a wildfire in 2008 and had been living ever since at a property in Concow. He suspects it’s gone since he could hear his vehicles exploding as he was racing around Thursday morning, frantically helping neighbors gather their belongings.
“I’m trying to remember, and I’m trying to forget,” he said, recounting the possessions like his chainsaws and a his ‘83 Firebird that the flames consumed. “But I get that life goes on.”
“At least I got them,” he said referring to his dogs, Summer and Shugo.
Ian Moore, 28, of Chico, was at the intersection of Table Mountain Road and Highway 70 Sunday morning, waiting to get permission to drive a horse trailer into the disaster area with a large group of other trucks and trailers. They were all heading up to the Paradise area to rescue what animals they could find.
He spent the day Saturday helping rescue 10 horses, two of which were burned.
“They were standing on coals,” he said through the dust mask covering his mouth in the smoky air.
Asked why he’s sacrificing his weekend, Moore said: “The best thing about America is empowering citizens to do what we can to help.”
Among the victims of the fire are nearly 100 emergency responders and others in law enforcement. Seventeen of Paradise’s police officers lost their homes, Jones said. Her own home burned to the ground.
“Every member of the town council lost their home,” said Jones, a retired Caltrans executive who has lived in Paradise for 14 years. “If you think about it too much, it can overwhelm you.“
She estimated that 90 percent of the town’s houses are gone, and that about half of downtown has been destroyed. Still standing are Town Hall, the high school, the hospital, two of the three fire stations and two of the three grocery stores.
She said that she and everyone she has talked to plans to rebuild, despite the ongoing threat of fires.
“It doesn’t matter where you live,“ she said. “You can be in harm’s way anywhere. I never want to live my life in fear.”
Town officials will work this week from temporary offices in Chico, Paradise town manager Lauren Gill said.
“As soon as we can get back in,” the town will start assisting residents who wish to rebuild their homes, as well as helping businesses recover losses and possibly reopen, Gill said.
“We’re really looking at a chance to rebuild our community even better and stronger and safer, and I think we have a lot of hopeful and strong and brave people in the community who are up to the task,” she said.
Michael Zuccolillo, a town councilman, would not let the fire ruin a town tradition Sunday.
Paradise has been celebrating Veterans Day with the Paradise Parade of Flags since 1999. Typically about 1,100 flags line the Skyway. But the flags were destroyed when the Elks Lodge burned down.
Zuccolillo went on social media asking for help to celebrate the holiday and about 30 flags were donated. He and others put the flags up Sunday morning along Skyway.
“I decided as a sign of unity and hope that we’d still do the parade of flags,” he said. “It’s a sign of showing some normalcy in a sea of chaos. And just to show the hope that we are going to rebuild.”
So far, an estimated 33 firefighters have lost their homes to the fire and that number is expected to grow, officials said. And an estimated 30 Butte Sheriff’s Department employees lost homes as well.
Tim Aboudara Jr., state service director for the International Association of Fire Fighters, said losing a home is devastating for everyone but it poses additional challenges for firefighters who find themselves in an unfamiliar role of needing help.
“Like so many people in these communities the loss is devastating to our members,” said Aboudara, who is a Santa Rosa firefighter. “And it’s particularly insulting because they have spent so much time fighting fire and protecting homes and to be out on the line and doing their job and not know the status of their family and the status of their home is very difficult. But they never back down.”
A steady stream of distraught pet owners looking for dogs and cats left behind Thursday in the frantic evacuation stopped at the VCA Valley Oak Veterinary Center in Chico on Sunday, leafing through a binder filled with pictures of the animals brought in for care.
Animal control workers dropped off burned dogs and cats throughout the afternoon. Some pet seekers left with tears in their eyes, their search fruitless. Daren Helms held out hope. A cat that looked just like his — a white 6-year-old snowshoe short-hair named Ignatius — had been picked up by a firefighter and brought to the clinic, Helms said.
The cat wasn’t at the clinic Sunday evening but workers said Ignatius may have been transferred to an evacuated pet center at the Chico Airport, where less seriously injured animals were being treated. Helms and his family were heading that way Sunday hoping for a bright spot in what’s been a dark three days since their home burned.
“I would trade my house for that cat. I really would. The house can be replaced,” Helms said. “He sleeps on my chest every night. ... I miss that.”
Sacramento Bee reporters Adam Ashton, Claire Morgan and Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks contributed to this report.