PARADISE, Calif. — Hundreds of people poured Wednesday into the Northern California communities ravaged by the deadly Camp Fire, searching for human remains while authorities tried to track down 130 people who are unaccounted for after the blaze.
The staggering death toll from the fire increased to 56 as eight sets of remains were found.
Most of the people on the partial list of the missing posted earlier Wednesday on the Butte County website are senior citizens.
The majority of the missing live in Paradise, which is a town of 27,000 residents, many of them retirees. About 461 people and 22 cadaver dogs are searching the town and other communities, Butte County Sheriff and Coroner Kory Honea said.
“We’re moving as fast as we can. It will take as long as it takes,” Honea said when asked about a timeline for the search. “It’s an important thing that we get right. And I understand the issue (of residents wanting to return to their properties), and I’m balancing the competing interests.”
The sheriff’s department will begin taking DNA samples from people who are missing a family member on Thursday, he said.
The Camp Fire is one of two major blazes burning in California that have left at least 58 people dead. The other is the Woolsey Fire in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, which has killed at least two people and destroyed nearly 500 homes.
Earlier officials said the number of missing was 103 but the total will change each day with new information.
Residents want to rebuild
Paradise Mayor Jody Jones insists her town will be brought back.
“We’re gonna come back, we’re gonna rebuild. We’re gonna make Paradise Paradise again,” she said Wednesday.
Jones knows people want desperately to come back to see what can be done, what is gone and what can be salvaged.
The threat from the Camp Fire is now minimal, but there are other dangers, she said.
“I know people want to take RV’s up and stay on their land while they rebuild and I think that will eventually be possible, but it’s gonna take time before it’s safe enough to do that. We all just need to be patient,” she said.
Water service is out and power lines are down, she said.
Carmen Smith is one of those anxious and displaced residents. She 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.”
In Southern California, firefighters still are battling the Woolsey Fire, which so far has left at least two people dead in Malibu. Authorities are trying to determine whether a third person, found dead at a burned home in Agoura Hills, also died as a result of that fire, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said.
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. It was 85% contained by Wednesday afternoon.
Winds were “particularly strong” Wednesday morning but weakened during the day, meteorologists said. The forecast calls for light winds Thursday and Friday, but brisk winds are expected to return Saturday night.
The chance of precipitation — next week — has increased, forecasters said.
A look at the wildfires’ astonishing numbers
• Camp Fire: The Camp Fire has destroyed 8,650 homes and scorched 138,000 acres in Northern California. As of Wednesday, the inferno was 35% contained. More than 10,000 structures have burned down, officials said.
• Woolsey Fire: This Southern California blaze has torched 98,362 acres and destroyed at least 504 structures. As of Wednesday, the inferno was 52% contained.
• Hill Fire: A second Southern California blaze has burned 4,531 acres and was 96% contained as of Wednesday morning.
• Death toll: There have been 58 deaths statewide.
• 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.
Federal officials visit
President Donald Trump received a briefing about the fires from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long, who were in California.
The two officials told reporters the Camp Fire was one of the worst disasters they have seen.
Zinke also said this is not the time to cast the deadly fire in a political light or cast blame.
He said he wanted the focus to be on checking with families and residents, and to continue to work with state and local partners throughout the recovery phase.
“This is not just a state issue. It’s not a federal issue. This is an American issue of managing our forests,” he said.
Zinke cited several reasons for the increase in devastation including dead and dying timber and beetle infestation. He stopped short of blaming climate change.
He said prescribed burns are a start and that “the best scientists are looking at best practices.”
After viewing the decimated town of Paradise, Long said a lot of planning will go into reconstructing the town.
“This is a very complex disaster. Probably one of the most complicated disasters this nation has ever seen when it comes to Paradise,” he said.
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.
Thomas Hirsch was searching the burned remains of his childhood home Tuesday in Malibu, looking for anything salvageable. His parents — who are 97 and 94 — still live there and plan to rebuild, he said.
“We’re survivors. We’ll rebuild, we’ll come back and take whatever little insurance money they had, clean it off, rebuild it and make it nicer than it was before,” he said.
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.
The wildfires across California are being battled by more than 9,600 firefighters, including many from out of state.