For the third day in a row, Butte County searchers reported Wednesday they found no new human remains in areas burned by the Camp Fire, prompting the county’s sheriff to say he is hoping the death toll has reached its peak.
That number, 88, is the highest by far in California history from a wildfire.
“I’m pleased to report no new fatalities tonight,” Sheriff Kory Honea said at a press briefing. “That is the third night in a row. My sincere hope is that no additional human remains will be located.”
Honea said searchers have now gone through 18,000 burned structures, and that the active search for remains has concluded.
The sheriff said, however, if residents returning to the area find what they think are human bone fragments, they should leave the fragments undisturbed and call the sheriff’s office. Officials will dispatch a recovery team to the site.
The Camp Fire swept through the Butte County hills three weeks ago, largely destroying the towns of Paradise, Magalia and Concow.
The list of missing persons grew slightly Wednesday to 196, a result of deputies having finished cataloging a backlog of reported missing persons, the sheriff said. At one point a week after the fire, the list had ballooned to more than 1,200.
Butte County officials, meanwhile, say residents may be allowed re-entry in many burned areas, including significant areas of Paradise, early next week, and other areas before the end of next week.
Highway 70 through the area may be reopened next week as well, Honea said.
Those re-openings could be delayed, however, if upcoming rains cause flash flood concerns. The area is expected to be hit with several storms in the coming days. Honea warned residents that if they do go back in over coming weeks, they will have to watch the weather and be ready to evacuate if the flood risk rises.
Honea said law enforcement will be accompanying Pacific Gas & Electric Co. crews working in the burn areas – the result of a threat by a resident to shoot utility workers.
Honea said he recognizes people may be angry with the utility company, but said, “your anger should not be directed toward those men and women out there working every day” to make the area safe for residents to return.
The utility company reported two power outages in the area on the morning the fire ignited. Fire officials have declined so far to say what they think caused the blaze.
A federal judge in the Bay Area this week called on the company to explain whether “reckless operation or maintenance of PG&E power lines” started a wildfire. U.S. District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco, who is overseeing PG&E’s criminal probation from the deadly San Bruno pipeline explosion in 2010, said he wants to determine if the utility company has violated the terms of its probation.
Butte County health officials have issued a hazard advisory advising people not to try to re-establish residence yet on burned property until property is declared clear of hazardous waste, including ash and debris. Officials say that debris may contain metals, lead, mercury, dioxin, arsenic and other carcinogens.
A state Office of Emergency Services representative said his agency is expected to remove 3.5 million tons of debris from the burn area.
Butte County and partner agencies are hosting a community meeting Thursday at 7 p.m at Pleasant Valley High School to update residents about recovery efforts.