CHICO (CBS/AP) — Authorities in Butte County reported six additional deaths in the Camp Fire, raising the death toll to 29 and matching the deadliest wildfire on record in California history.
During a press conference Sunday evening in Chico, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea confirmed that the death toll from the fire had risen to 29 people after six new bodies were found in Paradise on Sunday. Five of the bodies were discovered in homes and one was in a vehicle.READ MORE: UPDATE: 15 Injured, 20 Rescued After Fire Erupts Inside San Francisco Tenderloin Apartment Building
Honea also reported that over 200 people were still missing while 107 were located. 1,385 people were being housed in area shelters, and 6,345 homes have been destroyed.
Officials said that some of the missing may be at the evacuation centers.
The sheriff said the current evacuation orders from the Camp Fire are still in place.
With hearses standing by, crews stepped up the search for bodies in the smoking ruins of Paradise — and relatives desperately looked for more than 100 missing loved ones — as the Camp Fire in Butte County continued to rage out of control.
Ten search teams were working in Paradise — a town of 27,000 that was largely incinerated on Thursday — and in surrounding communities. Authorities called in a mobile DNA lab and anthropologists to help identify victims of the most destructive wildfire in California history.
By early afternoon, one of two black hearses stationed in Paradise had picked up another set of remains.
People looking for friends or relatives called evacuation centers, hospitals, police and the coroner’s office.
The Camp Fire’s deadly wall of flames also overwhelmed the small community of Concow — population 700 — where search teams found two victims inside burned-out cars and another two inside a burned-out home.
The body of one Concow woman in her 70s was found in bed.
A family friend said Ellen Walker was sick and home alone when the fire began Thursday morning.
Nancy Breeding said Walker’s husband Lon was at work and had called a neighbor to knock on the door to get his wife to evacuate but it’s unclear whether she was alert at the time.
Breeding said Walker’s family had assumed she escaped the inferno until authorities confirmed her death late Friday.
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said the county was bringing in more rescue workers and consulted anthropologists from California State University at Chico because, in some cases, “the only remains we are able to find are bones or bone fragments.”
“This weighs heavy on all of us,” Honea said.
Authorities encouraged people with missing relatives to submit DNA samples to aid in identifying the dead.
The sheriff’s department compiled a list of over 200 people unaccounted for, but officials held out hope that many were safe but had no cellphones or some other way to contact loved ones.
Firefighters gained modest ground overnight against the blaze, which grew slightly to 173 square miles (110,720 acres)–almost the size of the city of San Jose–from the day before, but was 25 percent contained, up from 20 percent, according to Cal Fire.
Gov. Jerry Brown requested a major-disaster declaration from President Trump that would make victims eligible for crisis counseling, housing and unemployment help, and legal aid.
Mark Ghilarducci of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services said Sunday afternoon that the state had received federal funding and resources from FEMA to assist those impacted by the fire.
During a press conference Sunday, in response to the president’s recent Tweet about pulling federal funding and blaming poor forest management, Brown said, “The chickens are coming home to roost. This is real here. It’s not a question of pointing this way or that way, but pulling together in these tragic circumstances.”
Brown said that forest management was only one element in tackling wildfire.
The Democratic governor, a climate change evangelist, also stressed that wildfires have become more ferocious because of severe drought and climate change.
Brown said he is willing to bring home National Guard troops from the border to help with fires if they’re needed.
Along the fire lines, crews were preparing for a tough go.READ MORE: Woman Wounded As Stray Bullets Riddle Oakland Neighborhood
“So we’re expecting big winds tonight,” Todd Horton, of Cal Fire’s Tehama-Glenn Unit, told KPIX 5. “We’re trying to get ahead of it, and we’re going to put everything out that we can (before they arrive).”
Cal Fire spokesman Bill Murphy warned that gusty winds predicted into Monday morning could spark “explosive fire behavior.”
Horton and the thousands of other firefighters along the line were able to take advantage of calming winds to slow the advance of the fire on Saturday. Clearing skies over some the fire-stricken area also allowed air tankers to safely dump loads of much needed fire retardant.
Horton said it was the small battles that will make the difference in taming the fiery beast.
“They (large wildfires) don’t go out till the little battles get taken care of,” he said.
Steve Kaufmann, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said it fire fight has cost at least $8.1 million so far. It has destroyed more than 6,700 buildings, nearly all of them homes.
Drought, warmer weather attributed to climate change, and the building of homes deeper into forests have led to longer and more destructive wildfire seasons in California. While California officially emerged from a five-year drought last year, much of the northern two-thirds of the state is abnormally dry.
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Among the families of those missing, the wait for word has been agonizing. Complicating the search is the loss of cell service in much of the fire area and pockets of evacuees all over the county in makeshift camps.
Marty and Gayle Smith were sleeping in their car alongside De Sabla Lake above fire-ravage Magalia.
“I know people have been worried. We didn’t have any way to get through to them,” Marty Smith. “We got fire on all sides of us. We can go into the lake and the dam is made of rock so we are going to use that to our advantage.”
Smith’s brother had been searching the evacuation shelters for them all day Friday and Saturday morning until he got word they survived.
Crystal Harmon’s family is also hoping, praying and searching for the missing youngster. Her parents went to pick up their youngest child from school while a family friend was picking up Crystal but they never reunited.
The Harmons say they’ve checked all the local shelters but there’s still no sign of her.
“Really wish you went home, but we’re really worried about you so please come back soon,” said her sister, Gracie Harmon.
While they say their home is destroyed the Harmon’s say they won’t stop looking until they find Crystal.
For other survivors, emotions fluctuated between the joy of survival to the realization that they have lost their homes and all their belongings.
David Alves lost his home in Paradise.
“There’s people running out of their cars and fire so close, I wasn’t going to go to it,” Alves recalled while speaking to KPIX 5 on Saturday. “I got out of there with my life and I feel thankful. Mainly, it’s my kids. I lost everything — but things can be replaced. Kids can’t.”
Alves was living in a large trailer that he had stashed at his ex-wife’s home after watching the Carr Fire devastate Redding earlier this year. He wanted to make sure he had an escape plan.
Now, he was hitching up the trailer and heading out of Butte County.
“I’m probably gonna go south where there’s no smoke because my lungs,” he said. “My son has asthma, so I gotta get him outta here.”
He won’t ever be heading back to Paradise.
“It’s terrible,” he said. “I feel sorry for the people that lost their lives.”
Cal Fire urged people to call the three phone numbers listed below with reports involving missing persons, especially if someone previously reported missing has been found.MORE NEWS: Santa Rosa Police Search For Hit-And-Run Driver Who Critically Injured Bicyclist
- (530) 538-6570
- (530) 538-7544
- (530) 538-7671
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