California wildfires: Death toll rises to 25 as blazes continue

Death toll rises after 14 more bodies were found in the decimated Paradise city, as thousands flee three separate fires.

The death toll from destructive wildfires hitting California rose to 25 as rescue workers recovered 14 more bodies of people killed by the late-season infernos.

The bodies were discovered in or near the decimated town of Paradise in the state’s north, bringing the number of confirmed dead from the blaze there to 23, according to officials. 

Dubbed Camp Fire, the blaze ravaging the northern part of the state has become the most destructive in its history. 

In the south of the state, near Malibu, another blaze that started on Friday claimed two more lives, bringing the total toll to 25. Thousands have fled the area and firefighters continue to battle all fronts.

The wildfire near Malibu, referred to as Woolsey Fire, has now doubled in area, covering 28,000 hectares. 

More than 250,000 have moved out of Malibu and Calabasas, including many actors and celebrities that reside in the upscale area. 

In Paradise, more than 6,700 houses and businesses have been destroyed, more structures than in any previous Californian wildfire on record. While Camp Fire is already the third deadliest in the state’s history, 110 people are still missing and the death toll is expected to rise, according to officials.

Flames climb trees as the Camp Fire tears through Paradise [AP Photo/Noah Berger]
Flames climb trees as the Camp Fire tears through Paradise [AP Photo/Noah Berger]

By Saturday, the Camp Fire had burned through 40,500 hectares and was only 20 percent contained while fire chiefs estimated it would take about three weeks to bring it fully under control. 

Firefighters hope to take advantage of a temporary drop of winds on Sunday to bring the fires under control, while meteorologists expect southern winds to pick up on Monday and through next week, spreading the flames. 

California’s governor-elect Gavin Newsom had declared a state of emergency in Los Angeles, Butte and Ventura counties that continued on Saturday. 

Sheriff’s investigators have been searching through the wreckage of Paradise in California’s Butte County as they look for bodies

‘We got our butts kicked’ 

Over 3,000 emergency personnel are fighting the blazes using 23 helicopters and firefighting air tankers, according to officials, but the raging winds and speed of the fires were staggering. 

The Camp Fire began spreading in the north through Butte County on Thursday with such force that firefighters were unable to stop it for the first 24 hours and had to focus solely on rescues while it flattened Paradise, according to statements. 

Speaking about the initial fire run on Thursday, Butte County Fire Department chief Darren Read choked from his emotions as he told firefighters, “It’s not an understatement to say that you got your butts kicked.”

“We had very little time to evacuate our communities,” Read, who doubles as the Paradise Fire Department chief, continued.

“And you guys saved the lives of thousands of people in our communities. Truly heroic efforts,” he said.  

Nurse Cassie Lerossignol hugs a coworker as the Feather River Hospital burns while the Camp Fire rages through Paradise [AP Photo/Noah Berger]
Nurse Cassie Lerossignol hugs a coworker as the Feather River Hospital burns while the Camp Fire rages through Paradise [AP Photo/Noah Berger]

California fire safety officer Jack Piccinini warned firefighters on Saturday to watch out for “emotional fatigue”.

“Between last year and this year, all of you have been on fires where you have seen communities experience devastating losses, not just property damage but also civilian fatalities as well as firefighter fatalities and serious injuries,” Piccinini said.

Herculean efforts 

Nevada City-based firefighter Thor Shirley said it was the worst fire he had seen in 18 years.

It was a non-stop effort pulling people from homes and helping those trapped on the road while trying to escape the inferno. 

“It’s frustrating because you want to save property and lives. You just have to readjust what you do, conditions dictate the tactics – to save people’s lives is our No. 1 goal,” he said. 

“It was just scoop ’em up, load ’em up and go.” 

His crew rescued people who were bedridden, three nurses, a doctor, a sheriff’s deputy and a California Highway Patrol officer.

Firefighter Casey Peck said he “has never prayed so hard in his life”.

Casey and Shirley, who work for separate fire stations, were caught in the same traffic jam in their engines as cars ignited and trapped firefighters and fleeing residents alike.

The fire was burning hot enough to peel the firetruck’s paint and melt its hoses, blowing relief valves designed to withstand 900 degrees and charring nearby vehicles, Peck said. 

If it wasn’t for a Cal Fire Bulldozer operator who “saved our bacon,” as Peck explained, they would probably all have burned right there.

The bulldozer ploughed flaming vehicles out of the road and cleared a lane for the fire engines and several vehicles to move to a grassy area, cleared down to fireproof mineral soil.

Four people fleeing their flaming cars were pulled in the firetruck, including a nurse from a nearby hospital with her pants on fire, Peck said after finishing a 48-hour shift on Saturday.

The firefighters pressed fire-resistant blankets against the truck’s windows to provide insulation against the searing heat, then waited out the firestorm.

‘Mismanagement of forests’

President Donald Trump said “gross mismanagement of forests” is to blame for the wildfires.

“There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor,” he wrote in a Twitter post early on Saturday.

“Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!” he added.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies