‘It’s not over yet.’ High winds feed California wildfires as death toll rises
(CNN) — As the death toll from wildfires ravaging both ends of California climbed on Sunday, powerful winds swept through the state, stretching firefighting resources to the limit.
At least 31 people have died in the fires: 29 in Northern California’s Camp fire and two in Southern California’s Woolsey fire.
The Camp fire — the most destructive fire in state history and one of the deadliest — virtually burned the town of Paradise to the ground, destroying thousands of homes and structures.
There are 228 people still unaccounted for as a result of the blaze, Butte County Sheriff and Coroner Kory Honea told reporters Sunday evening.
The Woolsey fire continues to be a major blaze, displacing hundreds of thousands of residents as it moves east, including several celebrities. Firefighters on Sunday managed to contain flareups generated by high winds in Los Angeles County. But officials warned that the dry conditions feeding the fire are expected to continue into the week.
“This is not the new normal, this is the new abnormal,” Gov. Jerry Brown said of the role of climate change. “The chickens are coming home to roost, this is real here.”
Here’s the latest on the fires:
• Camp Fire: The largest of the trio, the Camp Fire has burned 111,000 acres across Northern California and is 25% contained as of Sunday morning, according to Cal Fire. It’s destroyed an estimated 6,700 buildings, most of which were homes.
• Woolsey and Hill fires: In Southern California, the Woolsey fire had spread to 85,500 acres and was 15% contained Sunday night, up from 5% the night before. The smaller Hill Fire covered 4,531 acres and was 75% contained. Together, responsible for the destruction of 179 structures, but another 57,000 are threatened, according to fire officials.
• Massive evacuations: More than 300,000 people have been forced from their homes statewide. The majority of those residents are in Los Angeles County, where 170,000 were evacuated.
Winds, climate change provoking fires
Firefighters made headway in containing the fires Saturday, but the return of powerful winds a day later threatened that progress, especially for the Woolsey fire. Officials warned gusts would peak at around 40 mph.
“Sadly, with these winds, it’s not over yet,” Scott Jalbert, chief of Cal Fire’s San Luis Obispo Unit, said Sunday morning.
Celebrities Neil Young, Robin Thicke and Gerard Butler were among those who lost their homes. Butler posted a photo on Twitter of the charred remains of a home and thanked firefighters for their courage. Thicke also posted a statement on Instagram thanking firefighters and volunteers who “risked their lives trying to save our home.”
In a post on his official website decrying the impact of climate change, Young said “I have lost my home before to a California wildfire, now another.”
Resources, including dozens of fire trucks and thousands of firefighters, are pouring in from out of state.
Firefighters on Sunday contained significant flare-ups in wind-prone canyons along the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu and Bell Canyon in Ventura County, Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said. Conditions are expected to persist overnight and Monday, threatening new flare-ups that could reach beyond containment lines, Osby said.
He urged those in mandatory evacuation zones to leave, warning that they can get in the way of firefighting efforts
“We must remain vigilant and not let our guard down,” Osby said.
Osby and other officials echoed Brown’s sentiments about the threat of climate change.
The southern part of the state used to be able to rely on help from their counterparts up north around this time of the year, Osby said, when the threat of fire was much less prevalent in those communities. But that’s no longer the case.
“And as evident by the Camp Fire in Northern California — which is larger than this, more structures have been lost than this, more lives have been lost — it’s evident from that situation statewide that we’re in climate change and it’s going to be here for the foreseeable future,” Osby said.
Though the state’s drought has eased slightly, it’s still abnormally dry, according to CNN meteorologist Taylor Ward. That leaves a lot of dry vegetation to feed fires.
Crews searching for the dead
Crews on the scene of both fires are combing through blackened ruins of homes. The number of dead more than doubled late Saturday, and continued to rise on Sunday.
So far, 29 bodies have been recovered in or near Paradise, a town of about 26,000 that’s been all but leveled by the Camp fire. Of the six discovered Sunday, five were in homes and one was in a vehicle.
On Sunday, officials confirmed that two deaths in Malibu were related to the Woolsey Fire, bringing the statewide death toll to 31.
The painstaking process of finding the missing and identifying the dead is challenging, with some of the bodies recovered burned beyond recognition.
“In some cases, the only remains we are able to recover are bones or bone fragments,” Honea, the Butte County sheriff and coroner, told reporters. “I know that members of the community who are missing loved ones are anxious, and I know that the news of us recovering bodies has to be disconcerting.”
Many bodies recovered from the Camp Fire were found inside or near homes or in vehicles, officials said.
Hours after the fire broke out, residents fleeing Paradise became trapped in gridlock traffic as the fire closed in. Some drivers abandoned their vehicles in the chaos and attempted to escape on foot.