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Tuesday, April 16, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Hundreds Still Missing as Northern California Fire Becomes State’s Deadliest

The Camp Fire in Northern California has so far claimed 42 lives, making it the deadliest wildfire in state history – and hundreds of other people remain missing as of Tuesday.

(CN) – The Camp Fire in Northern California has so far claimed 48 lives, making it the deadliest wildfire in state history – and some 200 people remain missing as of Tuesday.

“This is an unprecedented event,” Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said during a news conference on Monday evening. “If you’ve been up there, you also know the magnitude of the scene we’re dealing with. I want to recover as many remains as we possibly can, as soon as we can. Because I know the toll it takes on loved ones.”

Officials have not released a specific number of total missing people, but the number is likely in the hundreds after the fire essentially destroyed the town of Paradise, population 27,000, in a matter of hours.

The firefight remains active despite the blaze growing at a slower rate. Cal Fire officials put containment at just 30 percent on Tuesday morning.

“Firefighters will work to put direct and indirect fire lines in while scouting and putting in contingency lines ahead of the fire,” the agency said on Tuesday. “Many risks and hazards along with steep terrain in some areas will impede firefighting efforts.”

Over 7,000 structures, including about 80 percent of the houses and businesses in Paradise, were completely destroyed in the blaze. Another 15,000 remain in harm’s way.

“Firefighters provided structure protection and will continue to provide structure protection throughout daytime operations,” Cal Fire said.

As firefighters battle to keep the fire from reaching the cities of Chico and Oroville, law enforcement in Paradise continue their search for the missing, and fear the death toll may spike.

Honea told reporters there are 150 search and rescue workers who specialize in finding human remains, including cadaver dogs and two portable morgue units used by the military, on the scene. These units are being deployed in addition to the 13 different coroner teams provided by different agencies from around the state.

“The numbers of losses of life are probably going to go much higher, I fear,” said Jim Broshears, the emergency operations center coordinator in Paradise and the town’s former fire chief.

So far the dead have been found in their cars, in their burned-out homes and outdoors, apparently caught while trying to flee the flames on foot.

Paradise is a popular retirement community, with a quarter of its population over the age of 65.

Only three of the dead have been identified to date – Ernest Foss, 65; Jesus Fernandez, 48; and Carl Wiley, 77.

Fire officials have not disclosed the cause of the fire, but Pacific Gas & Electric notified state regulators that it had trouble with a malfunctioning transmission line around the time and in the vicinity where the fire started.

The Associated Press reported a landowner near the fire’s origin received an email from PG&E stating they needed to access her property because a power line was sparking. PG&E has yet to comment publicly. Governor-elect Gavin Newsom said the state must first "assess the facts" about how the wildfires started before discussing potential disciplinary action against utilities.

But that hasn't stopped the lawsuits: over 20 plaintiffs, including the estate of someone who died in the fire, sued the utility Tuesday. They claim the utility has a long history of failing to upgrade its aging infrastructure.

“PG&E has a well-documented history of implementing a ‘run to failure’ approach with its aging infrastructure, ignoring necessary maintenance in order to line its own pockets with excessive profits,” the complaint says.

Claims include inverse condemnation, negligence and nuisance. The plaintiffs are represented by the law firm Corey, Luzaich, De Ghetaldi & Riddle of Millbrae, California.

Meanwhile in Southern California, fire officials in Los Angeles and Ventura counties refused to let residents return to neighborhoods scorched by the Woolsey Fire due to damaged roadways, fallen trees, power poles and possible flare-ups.

"If you're being held back it's because your life and the lives of your family and neighbors are still potentially in danger," said Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell at a press conference Tuesday.

At least two people died as a result of the wildfire that has been fanned by strong winds. Officials said the blaze has charred over 96,000 acres and destroyed more than 430 homes and other buildings.

Los Angeles County Fire Department Chief Deputy David Richardson said the footprint of the Woolsey Fire is currently the size of Denver, Colorado.

A shift in winds caused a flare-up in the Santa Monica Mountains on Tuesday morning that darkened the skies above southeastern Ventura County, about 20 miles west of where residents were told that they could return home in Los Angeles County.

Cal Fire said the flare-up started at 9:15 a.m. and is burning along a steep ridgeline on the west side of the Woolsey Fire. Smoke billowed up over the unincorporated community of Hidden Valley, an affluent neighborhood that was evacuated in the Thomas Fire which swept across the region nearly a year ago.

A Red Flag warning is in place through Wednesday evening in Ventura County and portions of Los Angeles County, with winds expected to reach between 40 to 60 mph.

In a bit of good news, officials said the first rain of the season could arrive as soon as next week and may provide some relief for firefighters. But rain also raises the risk of mudslides in the fire's burn scar, they noted.

Investigators with the LA County Sheriff’s Office are also looking into the deaths of two adults found in a burned vehicle off Mulholland Highway in Malibu last week. They believe the driver may have become confused while fleeing the area and became surrounded by flames. The victims have not yet been identified.

The Woolsey Fire is 30 percent contained. The cause is still under investigation.

The nearby Hill Fire, which started in Ventura County less than 30 minutes before the Woolsey Fire, has charred about 4,500 acres and is 80 percent contained.

Gov. Jerry Brown refused to directly address a weekend of tweets from President Donald Trump blasting forest management practices in the Golden State and threats to withhold federal disaster relief, and declined to say whether Trump should tour the fire zones. Instead, he said he was “very glad” to receive federal money for the emergency and reiterated the fires are part of the “new abnormal” in California.

“This is unprecedented or what I call the new abnormal,” Brown said responding to a question about whether the state has done enough to prevent wildfires. “The winds are faster, temperatures are hotter and the soil and vegetation are drier; this is unprecedented.”

Nick Cahill contributed to this report from Sacramento.

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