California Wildfire Death Toll Hits 25 as Grim Search Continues

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

Paradise (AFP) – Search teams scoured the carnage of California’s most destructive ever wildfire Sunday, with the state-wide death toll climbing to 25 as high winds and tinder-dry conditions hampered the effort to 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 metal carcasses, while power lines were gnawed by the flames.

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

Local sheriff Kory Honea told a news conference late Saturday 14 more bodies had been found in and around the devastated community of 27,000 people, bringing the number of dead to 23.

Only two wildfires have claimed more lives in California, the most recent more than a quarter-century ago.

Further south, where the “Woolsey Fire” is threatening mansions and mobile homes alike in the celebrity redoubt of Malibu, the bodies of two people were found inside a vehicle in a long driveway, Deputy Aura Sierra of the Sheriff’s Information Bureau said.

Mandatory evacuation orders have been issued for more than 250,000 people across California.

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 marked spots that were tagged “Doe C” and “Doe D,” suggesting that bodies had been collected.

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 105,000 acres (42,500 hectares) and is 20 percent contained, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said. So far, three of the more than 3,200 firefighters deployed have been injured.

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

Local power authorities told state officials that an outage occurred near the spot where the fire erupted, The Sacramento Bee reported, but there is no official cause of the blaze.

Concerns over looting were meanwhile growing, with two so far arrested in Ventura County near LA.

“If you come into these affected areas to try and take advantage of the destruction and the suffering of these residents, you will be arrested, charged and we will take you to jail,” Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Chief John Benedict said.

– ‘Dangerously wrong’ –

President Donald Trump, in France for World War I commemorations, drew 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 five percent contained, Cal Fire said late Saturday.

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

Keegan Gibbs, 33, was crushed to find that his Malibu childhood 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.

Firefighters got a respite from the strong winds on Saturday, and Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said aircraft were deployed to drop fire retardants to strengthen the fire lines.

Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen however had a warning: “Don’t be lulled by a false sense of security.”

Winds of between 50 and 60 miles per hour were expected through Tuesday across the region, strong enough to quickly spread flames in unexpected directions, officials said.

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