Powerful winds are expected to sweep through California on Sunday, exacerbating three major fires that have ravaged the state from both ends for several days.
The Camp Fire — the most destructive fire in state history and the third-deadliest — has killed at least 23 people and 110 are missing. Hundreds of thousands of residents have been displaced and thousands of homes and structures have been destroyed.
Saturday saw a brief reprieve in the fierce winds fueling the fires, and firefighters hoped to use the break to their advantage.
But on Sunday a Cal Fire unit chief warned that “it’s not over yet.”
Here’s the latest on the fires:
• Camp Fire: The largest of the trio, the Camp Fire has burned 109,000 acres across Northern California and is 25% contained as of Sunday morning, according to Cal Fire. It’s destroyed an estimated 6,700 buildings, most of which were homes.
• Woolsey and Hill fires: In Southern California, the Woolsey fire has spread to 83,275 acres and was 10% contained, up from 5% the night before. The smaller Hill Fire covered 4,531 acres and was 70% contained. Together, responsible for the destruction of 179 structures, but another 57,000 are threatened, according to fire officials.
• Massive evacuations: More than 300,000 people have been forced from their homes statewide. The majority of those residents are in Los Angeles County, where 170,000 were evacuated.
Winds, climate change provoking fires
While firefighters made headway on containing the fires Saturday, the return of powerful winds a day later threatened that progress, particularly for the Woolsey Fire in Southern California.
“Sadly, with these winds, it’s not over yet,” Scott Jalbert, chief of Cal Fire’s San Luis Obispo Unit, told reporters at a news conference. He said the gusts have officials “very concerned.”
Officials previously warned gusts would peak at around 40 mph, which could affect the viability of using aircraft to combat the fires.
Authorities are worried that embers from the Woolsey Fire could reach unburnt buildings, spark new fires or add to the blaze, Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said.
They also told people in mandatory evacuation zones that if they hadn’t left yet, they needed to.
Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen warned the rate by which the fire is spreading is “exponentially more” than has been seen in fires in years past.
Echoing a comment Gov. Jerry Brown made during last year’s Thomas Fire, Lorenzen said extreme fire conditions were “kind of the new normal,”thanks to climate change.
Osby said the challenges presented by climate change are clear across California.
Authorities in the southern part of the state used to be able to rely on help from their counterparts up north around this time of the year, Osby said, when the threat of fire was much less prevalent in those communities. But that’s no longer the case.
“And as evident by the Camp Fire in Northern California — which is larger than this, more structures have been lost than this, more lives have been lost — it’s evident from that situation statewide that we’re in climate change and it’s going to be here for the foreseeable future,” Osby said.
Though the state’s drought has eased slightly, it’s still abnormally dry, according to CNN meteorologist Taylor Ward. That leaves a lot of dry vegetation to feed fires.
Crews searching for the dead
Crews have been combing through blackened ruins throughout the weekend. The number of dead more than doubled late Saturday with the news that officials discovered 14 more sets of remains, bringing the total to 23.
Ten victims were found in or near Paradise, California, a town of about 26,000 that’s been all but leveled by the Camp Fire.
Officials are also investigating the deaths of two people in Southern California. Their charred remains were found in a car in Malibu, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Chief John Benedict said, but homicide investigators were still working the case.
The painstaking process of finding the missing and identifying the dead is challenging, with some of the bodies recovered burned beyond recognition.
“In some cases, the only remains we are able to recover are bones or bone fragments,” Butte County Sheriff and Coroner Kory Honea told reporters. “I know that members of the community who are missing loved ones are anxious, and I know that the news of us recovering bodies has to be disconcerting.”
Many bodies recovered from the Camp Fire were found inside or near homes or in vehicles, officials said. Authorities said they have reports of 110 people still missing in the area affected by the blaze.
Hours after the fire broke out, fleeing residents who were being evacuated from Paradise found themselves trapped in gridlock traffic as the fire closed in. In the chaos, some drivers abandoned their vehicles and attempted to escape on foot.
Woolsey Fire: Some return home after ‘firestorm’
Craig Clunies-Ross and his wife had seen wildfires before and they were prepared when it was time to evacuate their Malibu home. But what they saw when they stepped outside shocked them.
“It was a 100-foot wall of flames. It was like a firestorm, it was roaring,” he told CNN affiliate KABC, referring to the Woolsey Fire.
The family quickly took photos, a few clothes and other essentials hoping they could come back to their home. On Saturday, they were among several families who drove through scorched hills and discovered their homes were leveled.