LOS ANGELES — Powerful winds swept through California on Sunday, threatening to erase the hard-earned progress made on wildfires that have ravaged both ends of the state and killed at least 31 people.
The Camp Fire in Northern California — the most destructive fire in state history — has killed at least 29 people, left hundreds missing and destroyed thousands of homes and structures.
At least two have died in Southern California’s Woolsey Fire, and hundreds of thousands of residents have been displaced.
Saturday saw a brief reprieve in the fierce winds fueling the fires, and firefighters used the break to their advantage. But as the gusts returned Sunday, a Cal Fire unit chief warned that “it’s not over yet.”
Parts of Los Angeles experienced gusts of 40-45 mph as fire crews worked tirelessly not to lose ground on the Woolsey Fire. In a briefing late Sunday afternoon, officials said the wind led to serious flare-ups, but crews were able to keep a majority of the flames within the contained burn area.
Here’s the latest on the fires:
• Camp Fire: The largest of the trio, the Camp Fire had burned about 111,000 acres across Northern California and was 25-percent contained as of Sunday night, officials said. It’s destroyed an estimated 6,700 buildings, most of which were homes.
Officials announced in an evening briefing that they found six more bodies Sunday, increasing that fire’s death toll to 29. Nearly 230 others are unaccounted for.
• Woolsey and Hill fires: In Southern California, the Woolsey Fire had spread to 85,500 acres and was 15-percent contained Sunday night, up from 5 percent the night before. The smaller Hill Fire covered 4,531 acres and was 75-percent contained. Together the fires were responsible for the destruction of at least 179 structures.
• 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. While some orders had been lifted Sunday, most remained in place.
The Los Angeles County Fire Chief said crews were repeatedly “hampered” by people who waited too long to evacuate and then needed to be rescued.
Winds, climate change provoking fires
Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen warned the rate by which the fire is spreading is “exponentially more” than has been seen in fires in years past.
Echoing a comment Gov. Jerry Brown made during last year’s Thomas Fire, Lorenzen said extreme fire conditions were “kind of the new normal,” thanks to climate change.
Osby said the challenges presented by climate change are clear across California.
Authorities in 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 are combing through blackened ruins of homes.
Many of the fires’ victims were found in or near Paradise, California, a town of about 26,000 that’s been all but leveled by the Camp Fire.
Two people found dead in Malibu were believed to be escaping down a long residential driveway in their car when the driver may have “become disoriented” and the vehicle was overtaken by flames, officials said in a Sunday briefing.
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,” Butte County Sheriff and Coroner Kory Honea 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.
Woolsey Fire: Some return home after ‘firestorm’
Craig Clunies-Ross and his wife had seen wildfires before and they were prepared when it was time to evacuate their Malibu home. But what they saw when they stepped outside shocked them.
“It was a 100-foot wall of flames. It was like a firestorm, it was roaring,” he told CNN affiliate KABC, referring to the Woolsey Fire.
The family quickly took photos, a few clothes and other essentials hoping they could come back to their home. On Saturday, they were among several families who drove through scorched hills and discovered their homes were leveled.