Hell in Paradise: fire crews in grim search for California’s dead

The largest fires were in Butte County, a scenic area in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains north of Sacramento, and in the Los Angeles area, where two deaths were reported
AFP

Paradise (United States) (AFP) – Search teams scoured the carnage of California’s most destructive ever wildfire for victims on Sunday, as the state-wide death toll rose to 26 with high winds hampering the effort to rescue property and save lives.

Firefighters took advantage of a brief calm overnight to make headway against the multiple blazes, but conditions were expected to be hellish on Sunday with winds reaching as high as 70 miles (110 kilometers) an hour.

In fire zones north and south, acrid smoke blanketed the sky for miles, the sun barely visible. On the ground, cars caught in the blaze were reduced to mangled metal carcasses, while power lines were gnawed by the flames.

The largest inferno — the so-called “Camp Fire” in the northern foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains — has destroyed 6,700 homes, business and other buildings in the town of Paradise, effectively wiping it off the map.

At least 23 people have lost their lives in and around the community of 27,000, according to an official count by authorities. 

An AFP journalist in Magalia, a 10-mile drive north of Paradise, saw workers from a local mortuary team recover another body which was put into a blue bag and loaded onto a hearse. 

Only two Californian wildfires have claimed more lives — the most recent more than a quarter-century ago.

At the southern end of the state, where the “Woolsey Fire” is threatening mansions and mobile homes alike in the coastal celebrity redoubt of Malibu, the death toll has been limited to two victims found in a vehicle on a private driveway.

Los Angeles County Fire chief Daryl Osby told reporters of his gratitude to firefighters “who’ve done all they could do save tens of thousands of people’s lives and thousands of people’s homes.”

– ‘ New normal ‘ –

Rescuers spent Saturday collecting bodies around Paradise and placing them in a black hearse. Charred body parts were transported by bucket, while intact remains were carried in body bags.

At the Holly Hills Mobile Estate the mobile homes had been reduced to smoldering piles of debris. Yellow police tape delineated spots that were tagged “Doe C” and “Doe D,” a grim marker of the bodies that had recently been removed.

Locals fled the danger, but police told AFP some farmers returned to check on their cattle.

Fanned by strong winds, the “Camp Fire” has so far scorched 109,000 acres (45,000 hectares) and is 25 percent contained, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said. So far, three of the more than 4,000 firefighters deployed have been injured.

They estimate they will need three weeks to fully contain the blaze.

Evacuation orders have been issued to more than 250,000 people across California, with authorities urging residents not to ignore warnings to flee.

“We’re entering a new normal. Things are not the way they were 10 years ago,” Ventura County Fire Department Chief Mark Lawrenson said.

“The rate of spread is exponentially more than it used to be. Please heed evacuation warnings. Do not stay in your homes to try to defend them.”

– ‘Dangerously wrong’ –

Almost 6,000 miles away, President Donald Trump, in France for World War I commemorations, drew fierce criticism for an unsympathetic reaction to the devastation.

“There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor,” Trump tweeted, threatening to withdraw federal support.

Brian Rice, the head of the California Professional Firefighters, slammed the tweet as “ill-informed, ill-timed and demeaning to those who are suffering as well as the men and women on the front lines.”

He said the president’s claim that forest policies were mismanaged “is dangerously wrong.”

The tweet also drew political criticism. Republican Senator Cory Gardner told ABC News on Sunday: “I don’t think it’s appropriate to threaten funding. 

“That’s not going to happen. Funding will be available. It always is available to our people wherever they are, whatever disaster they are facing.”

– Malibu mansions in flames –

In southern California, the “Woolsey Fire” engulfed parts of Thousand Oaks, where the community is still shell-shocked after a Marine Corps veteran shot dead 12 people in a country music bar on Wednesday.

It has consumed around 83,000 acres, destroyed at least 177 buildings and was ten percent contained, Cal Fire said Sunday. 

The blaze reached the Paramount Ranch, destroying sets used for hundreds of productions including HBO’S sci-fi western “Westworld,” network officials said.

Keegan Gibbs, 33, was crushed to find his childhood Malibu home had been consumed by flames.

“Malibu is a really small community and gets a bad rap for being this kind of elitist, snobby place, and it’s exactly the opposite,” Gibbs told the Los Angeles Times.

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