PARADISE (Reuters) – Emergency teams are searching for more than 200 people listed as missing in the deadliest northern California wildfire on record, and officials voiced concerns the casualty toll will climb higher as a resurgence of fierce winds fanned the flames.
The deadly Camp Fire also ranked as California’s most destructive ever in terms of property losses, having incinerated more than 6,700 homes and other buildings in the Sierra foothills of Butte County, about 280 km north of San Francisco.
More than 15,000 more structures remained listed as threatened on Monday in an area so thick with smoke that visibility was reduced in some places to less than half a mile.
Most of the devastation and loss of life was in and around the town of Paradise, where flames reduced most of the buildings to ash and charred rubble on Thursday night, just hours after the blaze erupted.
In the wake of the chaotic evacuations in and around Paradise, at least 228 people were listed as unaccounted for early on Monday, according to Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea.
Speaking on CNN, Honea held out hope many of the missing would turn up safe, but added: “Given what we’ve dealt with so far with casualties as a result of this fire, I have concerns that it (the death toll) will rise.”
At least 29 fatalities have been confirmed so far, a tally that ranks as the most ever from a single northern California wildfire– surpassing the 25 lives lost in the 1991 Oakland Hills firestorm – and ties the all-time statewide record set in 1933 by the Griffith Park blaze in Los Angeles.
Authorities reported two more people perished over the weekend in a separate blaze, dubbed the Woolsey Fire, that has destroyed 370 structures and displaced some 200,000 people in the mountains and foothills near Southern California’s Malibu coast, west of Los Angeles.
The remains of some of the Camp Fire victims were found in burned-out vehicles that were overrun by walls of fire as evacuees tried to flee by car in panic, only to be trapped in deadly knots of traffic gridlock on Thursday night.
Taken together, the Camp Fire, the Woolsey Fire and a handful of smaller blazes in Southern California have displaced more than 224,000 people, CalFire said. About 8,000 firefighters were battling the flames, backed by squadrons of water-dropping helicopters and airplane tankers, including crews from out of state.