The number of people killed in wildfires burning in California has risen to 50 — including 48 from northern California’s Camp Fire, already the most destructive and deadly blaze in state history.
As firefighters battle that fire Wednesday in Butte County north of Sacramento, authorities fear more human remains will be found as searchers comb through rubble and ashes in Paradise, the ravaged town of about 27,000 residents.
“I want to tell you, though, this is a very, very difficult process,” Butte County Sheriff and Coroner Kory L. Honea told reporters. “There’s certainly the unfortunate possibility that even after we search an area, once we get people back in there, it’s possible that human remains can be found.”
Authorities have requested that 100 National Guard troops join cadaver dogs, mobile morgues and anthropology teams in the grim search and recovery of human remains.
In Southern California, firefighters still are battling the Woolsey Fire, which so far has left two people dead in Malibu.
They’ve also been fighting a new blaze, the Sierra Fire, in San Bernardino County. It started late Tuesday about 50 miles east of Los Angeles near Rialto and Fontana, and by Wednesday morning had burned 147 acres, though no evacuations have been ordered, the San Bernardino County Fire District said.
Fire officials said the Sierra Fire was fanned by the Santa Ana winds — strong, dry winds that high-pressure systems push from east to west, from the mountains and desert areas down into the Los Angeles area.
Winds will be “particularly strong” Wednesday morning but are expected to weaken by evening, the National Weather Service said.
Meanwhile in Northern California, forecasters have said the winds fueling the Camp Fire would slowly begin to decrease Wednesday and give firefighters a reprieve.
Residents desperate to come back
For hours, Carmen Smith waited Tuesday at a roadblock outside Paradise, hoping someone would help her get home and retrieve her husband’s medicine.
“I thought I was going to go home because I work at the hospital and we had to evacuate all the people, and I go, ‘Oh, I’m coming back home,’ but I did not know it was this bad,” Smith told CNN affiliate KCRA. “The fire was right there.”
Smith and others are wondering when they can go back to get medicine and clothing or simply to check on the damage.
“I don’t know what to do here,” Charles Terry told KCRA. “I need to get that stuff out of the house.”
Some residents have returned to what’s left of their gutted homes, but many have not. Authorities say downed power lines, busted gas lines and melted roads could endanger them.
California Highway Patrol Chief Brent Newman asked for the public’s patience as teams clear affected areas.
“It is not a safe environment whatsoever,” he said.
Authorities said they don’t yet know when residents will be able to get closer to their homes.
In Southern California, the Los Angeles County sheriff expressed empathy for residents waiting to return to the remains of the few hundred homes destroyed by the Woolsey Fire.
He took a helicopter tour of the burned areas and posted aerial photos of the destruction to Twitter.
“We see the frustration of (people) trying to get back into their homes & appreciate their cooperation,” Sheriff Jim McDonnell wrote.
A look at the wildfires’ astonishing numbers
• Camp Fire: The Camp Fire has destroyed 7,600 homes and scorched 130,000 acres in Northern California. As of Tuesday, the inferno was 35% contained.
• Woolsey Fire: This Southern California blaze has torched 97,620 acres and destroyed at least 483 structures. As of Wednesday morning, the inferno was 47% contained.
• Hill Fire: A second Southern California blaze has burned 4,531 acres and was 92% contained as of Tuesday night.
• Rising death toll: There have been 50 deaths statewide, with the vast majority in Northern California. Southern California’s Woolsey Fire has claimed two lives.
• A devastating week for the Golden State: More than 230,000 acres burned in California in the past week. That’s larger than the cities of Chicago and Boston combined. And in 30 days, firefighters have battled more than 500 blazes, said Cal Fire, the state’s forestry and fire protection agency.
Man used hose to save his Paradise home
Brad Weldon grabbed a garden hose as the Camp Fire approached his house last week, spraying water to keep the flames at bay and protect his disabled, elderly mother.
He had stayed in Paradise for his 92-year-old mother, who is blind and was unwilling to leave.
“There was times we were laying on the ground pouring the water on ourselves so we didn’t burn,” Weldon, 62, recalled Tuesday.
The water to the hose lasted four hours, and unlike many in the Northern California town, Weldon, his family and home survived mostly unharmed.
The house is remarkably unscathed, save for some scorching on the back of a work shed.
“It feels good to have it. I feel so sad for everyone though. Everybody I know lost everything,” he said while crying for his neighbors.
Power companies report problems before the wildfires
While the causes of the Camp and Woolsey fires have not been determined, state regulators are investigating two utility companies that reported incidents shortly before the two fires started Thursday.
Almost 15 minutes before the Camp Fire began near Pulga, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. said it experienced a transmission line outage about a mile northeast of the town.
In Ventura County, where the Woolsey Fire began, Southern California Edison reported that a circuit relayed about 2 minutes before the fire started Thursday afternoon. It happened “near E Street/Alfa Road” — the same intersection where Cal Fire said the Woolsey Fire began.
But the utility said “at this point we have no indication from fire agency personnel that SCE utility facilities may have been involved in the start of the fire.”
Both power companies said they are cooperating with state investigators.
Hundreds of thousands are displaced
More than 300,000 people have been forced from their homes statewide. Most of those live in Los Angeles County, where 170,000 were evacuated.
More than 9,000 firefighters are battling wildfires across California, including many from out of state.
Cal Fire tweeted a map showing all the states where firefighters are coming from — including Alaska, Indiana and Georgia.
“Cal Fire wants to recognize the many out of state partners that have joined in battling these wildfires,” the agency said.