PARADISE, Calif. — Nearly a week after the worst wildfire in California’s history broke out, firefighters are still battling its roaring flames, 48 people have been confirmed dead and evacuees are growing desperate.
The death toll from the Camp Fire rose Tuesday — and officials fear it will keep climbing — as search teams comb through rubble and ashes in fire-ravaged Paradise, a town of about 27,000 residents in Northern California.
“I want to tell you, though, this is a very, very difficult process,” Butte County Sheriff and Coroner Kory L. Honea told reporters. “There’s certainly the unfortunate possibility that even after we search an area, once we get people back in there, it’s possible that human remains can be found.”
Authorities have requested that 100 National Guard troops join cadaver dogs, mobile morgues and anthropology teams in the grim search and recovery of human remains in the wreckage.
Thousands of firefighters are hoping to make progress in containing the Camp Fire — now the deadliest and most destructive in California’s history.
In Southern California, firefighters are battling a new blaze, the Sierra Fire, in San Bernardino County. The fire started late Tuesday about 50 miles east of Los Angeles near Rialto and Fontana, growing from two to three acres to 20 acres in just 15 minutes, the San Bernardino County Fire District said.
Fire officials said the Sierra Fire was growing as a result of the Santa Ana winds.
Winds will be “particularly strong” Wednesday morning in Southern California but and are expected to weaken by the evening hours, the National Weather Service said.
Meanwhile in Northern California, forecasters have said the swirling winds that have fueled the Camp Fire would slowly begin to decrease Wednesday, giving firefighters a reprieve.
Residents desperate to come back
For hours, Carmen Smith waited at a roadblock outside of Paradise hoping someone would help her get home and retrieve her husband’s medicine.
“I thought I was going to go home because I work at the hospital and we had to evacuate all the people, and I go, ‘Oh, I’m coming back home,’ but I did not know it was this bad,” Smith told CNN affiliate KCRA. “The fire was right there.”
Smith is among the many residents wondering when they can go back to get medicine and clothing or simply to check on the damage.
“I don’t know what to do here,” another resident, Charles Terry told KCRA. “I need to get that stuff out of the house.”
Some residents have returned to what’s left of their gutted homes but plenty others have not. Authorities say the downed power lines, busted gas lines and melted roads could endanger them.
California Highway Patrol Chief Brent Newman asked for the public’s patience as teams clear affected areas.
“It is not a safe environment whatsoever,” he said.
Authorities say they don’t yet know when residents will be able to get closer to their homes.
A look at the wildfires’ astonishing numbers
• Camp Fire: The Camp Fire has destroyed 7,600 homes and scorched 130,000 acres in Northern California — that’s bigger than the size of Atlanta. As of Tuesday, the inferno was 35% contained.
• Woolsey Fire: The blaze has torched 97,114 acres and at least 435 homes have been lost in Southern California. As of Tuesday, the inferno was 40% contained.
• Hill Fire: A second Southern California blaze has burned 4,531 acres and was 92% contained as of Tuesday night.
• Rising death toll: There are a total of 50 deaths statewide. While the majority of the deaths have been confirmed in Northern California, the Woolsey Fire in Southern California has claimed two lives.
• A devastating week for the Golden State: In just the past week, more than 230,000 acres burned in California. That’s larger than the cities of Chicago and Boston combined. And in the past 30 days, firefighters have battled more than 500 blazes, said Cal Fire, the state’s forestry and fire protection agency.
Man used hose to save his Paradise home
Brad Weldon grabbed a garden hose as the Camp Fire approached his house, spraying water to keep the flames at bay and protect his disabled, elderly mother inside.
“There was times we were laying on the ground pouring the water on ourselves so we didn’t burn,” Weldon, 62, said.
He stayed in Paradise to protect his 92-year-old mother, who is blind and was unwilling to leave.
The water to the hose lasted four hours and unlike many in the Northern California town, Weldon, his family and his home survived the fire mostly unharmed.
Their house is remarkably unscathed, save for some scorching on the back of the work shed.
“It feels good to have it. I feel so sad for everyone though. Everybody I know lost everything,” he said while crying for his neighbors.
Power companies report problems before the wildfires
While the causes of the Camp and Woolsey fires have not been determined, state regulators are investigating two utility companies that reported incidents shortly before the two fires started.
Almost 15 minutes before the Camp Fire began near Pulga, PG&E said it experienced a transmission line outage about 1 mile northeast of the town.
In Ventura County, where the Woolsey Fire began, SoCal Edison reported that a circuit relayed about two minutes before the fire started Thursday afternoon. It happened “near E Street/Alfa Road” — the same intersection where Cal Fire said the Woolsey Fire began.
But SoCal Edison said “at this point we have no indication from fire agency personnel that SCE utility facilities may have been involved in the start of the fire.”
Both power companies say they are cooperating with state investigators.
Hundreds of thousands are displaced
More than 300,000 people have been forced from their homes statewide. Most of those residents live in Los Angeles County, where 170,000 were evacuated.
More than 8,000 firefighters are battling wildfires across California, including many from out of state.
Cal Fire tweeted a map showing all the states where firefighters are coming from — including Alaska, Indiana and Georgia.
“Cal Fire wants to recognize the many out of state partners that have joined in battling these wildfires,” the agency said.