PARADISE (CBS SF) — Weary firefighters and teams searching for victims braced Wednesday for another challenge from Mother Nature — a storm front that could dump as much as 4 inches of rain across the Camp Fire burn zone.
The National Weather Service has issued a flash flood watch for the region starting at noon on Wednesday through noon Friday. Also included in the watch were the burns areas left behind by the Carr, Delta and Hirz wildfires in Shasta County and the Mendocino Complex in Lake County.
“Flash floods and debris flows will be a particular threat in the wildfire burn areas,” the weather service warned.
Of particular concern in the Camp Fire’s ravaged landscape were trees weakened by the fire.
“The storm will be accompanied by winds gusting up to 30 to 45 mph, especially Thursday afternoon and evening,” the weather service said. “These could potentially bring down fire damaged trees.”
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea echoed those concerns.
“Trees badly burned, unstable to begin with, if they become water soaked, there’s the potential for them to go down and create a hazard,” he said.
The weather front is a dilemma for firefighters because the rains will further help contain the fire but also could present new damages on rain- slickened hillsides and roadways. The fire was 80 percent contained by early Wednesday and had burned more than 153,000 acres and destroyed more than 13,500 homes.
“This could quickly become a dangerous situation,” the weather service said. “Residents, emergency responders, persons traveling within the burn area should remain alert and take action should heavy rain develop.”
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It has been 227 days since the last storm rolled through Butte County. This one was packing a real punch — 3-4 inches of rain.
The storm could also create real havoc for the efforts to locate victims of the fire among the ruins in Paradise, Concow and Magalia. The death toll grew to 81 on Tuesday after the remains of two more victims were discovered inside the burned out remains of homes in Paradise.
Some 870 people are still missing in the fire which essentially annihilated the three towns, destroying nearly 13,000 homes and another 310 apartment buildings.
If mudslides are triggered by the storm, they could block roads and further damage an infrastructure already ravaged by the fire since it erupted near Concow on Nov. 8.
The mudflows could all but make it impossible to recover remains that have been reduced to ashes and bones by the intensity of the fire which advanced through Paradise covering a football field a minute. The speed overwhelmed residents in their homes and in cars and on foot as they tried to escape the wall of fire.
“Major fire followed by heavy rain? It’s kind of the worst case scenario,” firefighter Chris Pappas told the Washington Post in Paradise on Tuesday.
Honea said it was within the “realm of possibility” that officials would never know the exact death toll from the blaze. He also questioned whether the search for remains could be completed by midweek when rain is forecast.
“As much as I wish that we could get through all of this before the rains come, I don’t know if that’s possible,” Honea said.