'Only bones and fragments': California wildfire toll at 31 as grim searches go on

  12 November 2018    Read: 1597

In northern California on Sunday, investigators scoured wreckage left by the most destructive fire in state records, in search of remains of the dead. The death toll in and around the destroyed town of Paradise had reached 29 and seemed likely to climb. The toll for the state was 31, after two people were confirmed to have died near Los Angeles.

The Camp Fire grew to 111,000 acres Sunday and remains at 25% containment.

Taking advantage of a break in dry winds on Saturday, fire crews battling the 83,275-acre Woolsey fire were able to achieve 10% containment, officials said. But on Sunday morning, Scott Jalbert, unit chief for the Cal Fire San Luis Obispo division, told reporters the weather was likely to worsen and strong dry winds would cause new fires.

“This has us very concerned,” he said. “We need to make sure all citizens are vigilant that they do nothing to start a new fire.” He added that more than 8,000 firefighters from various agencies were on the front lines.

More than 50,000 people remain under evacuation, about 1,300 of whom are staying in shelters. No new evacuation orders have been issued since Saturday, but authorities advise that residents remain vigilant as a red flag warning remains in affect thru Monday morning due to high winds and low humidity.

“Everyone here, all state, federal and local firefighters, are doing everything they can to fight these fires,” he said. “Sadly with these winds it’s not over yet.”

In the north, near Paradise, Butte sheriff Kory Honea said an anthropology team from California State University, Chico was assisting, as in some cases “the only remains we are able to find are bones or bone fragments”. A mobile DNA lab was also on the way.

Victims had not been identified, but Honea said on Sunday evening that 228 people were still unaccounted for. Officials hoped many people on the list were alive, and in shelters, without a way to contact loved ones.

Amid a mass exodus from rural communities to safer towns in the Sacramento Valley, anxious family members and friends came from across the state and further to find loved ones not heard from since the fire began on Thursday. Honea said families should make every effort to find loved ones on their own before filing a missing person’s report.

The family of Barbara Carlson, 71, had not heard from her since Thursday morning, when she told them she did not plan to leave the home she shares with her sister Shirley Haley on Heavenly Place. Her son Mike and granddaughter Annika drove more than two hours to shelters in Oroville, Gridley, Live Oak and Chico, looking for the small woman with gray hair and freckles and a dog called Strawberry.

“We are praying she’s with her neighbors,” Annika said.

In southern California, fire tore through stars’ mansions and working-class homes. Extreme behavior, driven by winds, low humidity and a profusion of water-starved vegetation, made the fire difficult to stop.

The message repeated by fire and law enforcement officials on Sunday was that residents should evacuate when told to and not try to shelter in place. In areas of Topanga Canyon, many have chosen not to leave their homes. Officials emphasized the danger.

“We are truly concerned today,” said Los Angeles county fire chief Daryl Osby, adding that there are still a lot of hot spots left and areas to the east where flames could spread.

Speaking to reporters on Saturday night, state senator Henry Stern, who grew up in the Malibu area, said: “I don’t think it is possible to quantify the tragedy and dismay we all feel for the families who have lost their homes. Fires don’t respect politics or jurisdictions. That is why I am so grateful to all the jurisdictions who are here today. Between counties, cities, states government and our federal resources all cooperating. It is an incredible show of force and cooperation. We are so tremendously grateful.”

Stern implored Donald Trump to ensure the state received the federal support it needs. The president caused dismay with a Saturday tweet in which he claimed there was “no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor”, and threatened to withhold federal funds.

“There are many parties, many views out here,” Stern said. “This is not about politics – it is about people.”

Trump also tweeted messages of support. Governor Jerry Brown asked Trump to declare a major disaster, to bolster the emergency response and help residents recover.

Back in Paradise, a town of 27,000 founded in the 1800s, Robert Edwards had driven all night from Seattle to find his mother, Barbara Allen, who he had not heard from since Thursday. He and family members searched every shelter in town, including the Walmart parking lot, which had become crowded with fire refugees.

During a Saturday evening community meeting attended by hundreds of residents and evacuees, Edwards told the crowd he was looking for his mother.

“I just want her to call,” he said.

Someone from the crowd shouted: “I’ve seen her today!”

The room broke out in applause.

Edwards and his family, still holding missing persons posters with the blonde 77-year-old’s smiling face, returned to the store and began searching the parking lot. It was still crowded, with trailers and small barbecues hosted by local citizens and organizations to feed evacuees.

The Guardian was with him when he got the call with his mother’s location. Edwards rushed to the trailer where Barbara was staying, which he had checked on before. He was still pulling the keys out of the ignition as he jumped from the truck.

The glow of bright street lights illuminating her face, Barbara Allen stood waiting in the doorway, her arms open. It had taken more than two days for her son to find his mother. He hugged her tight and didn’t let go.

“I didn’t have a phone,” Barbara cried. “I didn’t have anyway of getting ahold of you.”

 


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