The flames from California’s deadliest wildfire have mostly retreated into forested, unpopulated areas of the state, but the death toll is still rising.
Rains are now soaking the water-starved northern part of the state, but the precipitation brings a threat of mudslides and makes efforts to recover human remains trickier.
Two more victims were found on Tuesday, bringing the death toll from Northern California’s Camp Fire to 81 people. Roughly 989 others are still missing, according to the Butte County Sheriff’s Office.
“We put the list out. It will fluctuate. It will go up, it will go down, because this is in a state of flux,” Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said Monday.
The Camp Fire, located less than 100 miles north of Sacramento, is now 80% contained. To date, it’s burned up roughly 240 square miles of land, an area larger than the city of Chicago.
President Donald Trump visited the wreckage in Paradise, California on Saturday and described the area as “total devastation.”
“We’re going to have to work quickly,” he said. “Hopefully this is going to be the last of these because this was a really, really bad one.”
The other deadly wildfire in California, the Woolsey Fire, burned more than 150 square miles in the hills around Los Angeles and is almost extinguished. Residents of Malibu and other LA suburbs whose houses were in the path of the fire have begun to return home to charred shells.
Two people were killed in the Woolsey Fire on November 9, and a third body was found in a burned home in Agoura Hills on November 14, bringing the death toll from both the Woolsey and Camp fires to 84.
Already this year, 7,778 fires have burned across California, fueled by hot, dry conditions and aggressive winds. The causes of both the Woolsey Fire and the Camp Fire are still under investigation, but sparking power lines may have played a role in the Camp Fire.
The Camp Fire is the deadliest and most destructive in California’s history
That speed made successful evacuations nearly impossible.
“I was sitting in my car just screaming, waiting to die,” Paradise resident Jackie Rabbit told INSIDER. She ditched her car and started running. She didn’t even notice her bloody knee or injured ankle as she raced to safety.
At least six people burned to death in their cars as they tried to escape, the Butte County Sheriff’s Office said.
“The fire was so close I could feel it in my car through rolled-up windows,” Rita Miller, who fled Paradise with her mother, told The Associated Press.
More than 13,700 homes and 500 businesses have been destroyed so far, along with over 4,100 other buildings, making the Camp Fire the most destructive wildfire in California’s history in terms of structures lost. Cal Fire doesn’t expect the blaze to be extinguished until the end of the month.
Searching for human remains among the ash is tricky
Coroner search teams are looking for victims in Paradise, where rain is beginning to fall for the first time in months.
More than 450 people were dispatched to look for human remains in the debris, the Associated Press reported. Abandoned cars in driveways can be a sign that residents might not have escaped in time.
Sifting through the ashes, the teams sometimes recover only the partial remains of a victim to place in a body bag.
“The long bag looks almost empty as it’s carefully carried out of the ruins and placed in a black hearse,” the AP’s Gillian Flaccus reported from Paradise.
Sheriff Honea said Butte County is working with anthropologists from California State University at Chico to help identify bone fragments among ash in the area, and some residents have given cheek swabs that might help officials identify their relatives’ remains.
You can register yourself as safe or search for loved ones who are missing using the Red Cross’ “Safe and Well” list online.
The rain this week will help firefighters, but it could make searching for remains more difficult.
The National Weather Service has issued a flash flood watch for areas where the Camp Fire burned, which is in effect from Wednesday afternoon through Friday morning.
Federal assistance is coming, but Trump blamed a lack of raking for the fires
Governor-elect Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in Butte County the day the fire broke out and sent a letter to President Donald Trump and the Federal Emergency Management Agency asking for federal assistance.
Trump approved some federal assistance for the California fires on November 9 and said on November 12 that he approved an “expedited request for a Major Disaster Declaration,” which allows people whose homes or workplaces were hit by the Woolsey or Camp Fires to apply for federal assistance.
But on Twitter, the president blamed the fires on poor forest management, and threatened that there may be “no more Fed payments.” (The federal government oversees more than 40% of California’s land.) When visiting, Trump also criticized Californians for not doing more raking.
“I was watching the firemen the other day, and they were raking areas — they were raking areas where the fire was,” Trump said on Fox News Sunday. “That should have been all raked out and cleaned out,” he added. “You wouldn’t have the fire.”
He suggested that’s how Finland prevents forest fires, but the president of Finland said it’s not true.
FEMA said in a release that federal disaster assistance for the fire victims “can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the effects of the disaster.”
The aid is much needed among fire victims who lost everything. Troy Miller, a Butte County resident, is camping in a truck next to the remains of his house in Concow.
“I’m alive and I’m still up here,” Miller told the Associated Press. “There are plenty of other people worse off than I. I’ve got a lot of faith in God. I think things will be OK.”
Smoke from the fires has traveled hundreds of miles and made San Francisco air unhealthy
Smoke from the Camp Fire has made it difficult for people to breathe for nearly two weeks. Soot and chemicals released from the flames blanketed wide swaths of Northern California in a gray haze.
Last weekend, the Environmental Protection Agency described the air throughout much of the Bay Area as “very unhealthy” to breathe. Federal air monitors suggested that residents limit time outside and avoid outdoor exercise.
Many museums opened their doors admission-free to help people find indoor activities.
The San Francisco Air Quality Index, which measures the number of dangerously small pollutants in the air, was worse than Beijing or New Delhi last Friday, prompting San Francisco public schools to close.
The conditions are expected to improve as rain continues to fall, though.
The Woolsey fire, which burned nearly 97,000 acres near LA, is almost extinguished
The Woolsey Fire, fueled by fierce Santa Ana winds, has destroyed more than 1,500 structures, mostly homes.
Three people died in the Woolsey Fire. Two burned bodies were found in a car in Malibu near Mulholland Highway, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said, while a third victim was discovered in the wreckage of a home in Agoura Hills.
At its peak, the fire forced over 275,000 people from their homes. Carol Napoli, who lives at the Vallecito mobile-home park for seniors in Newbury Park, told the AP that the flames approached the park so fast that her mother didn’t have time to grab her oxygen tank before they bolted in a car.
“We drove through flames to get out,” Napoli said, adding: “My girlfriend was driving. She said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ … Her son said, ‘Mom you have to — you have to drive through the flames.'”
The fire threatened mobile homes and mansions alike. Celebrities including Gerard Butler, Miley Cyrus, and Neil Young lost their houses.
More than 80% of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, the country’s largest urban national park, burned, according to the Los Angeles Times. Flames and smoke sent bobcats and mountain lions in the area scampering.
The blaze also destroyed the storied filming location of Paramount Ranch, where the shows “Westworld” and “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” were shot.
You can view current fire perimeters, evacuation updates, and shelter and donation information on the Ventura County Emergency Information site, the Ventura County Recovers site, and LA County’s Woolsey Fire site.
Both the Woolsey Fire and another small fire, the Hill Fire, threatened the town of Thousand Oaks, where residents were already reeling from a mass shooting that left 12 people dead.
A resident named Cynthia Ball told the AP it was “like ‘welcome to hell.'”
The LA County website says: “If you are affected by the Woolsey or Hill fires, the Thousand Oaks mass shooting, or both, you can call the Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990 or text ‘TalkWithUs’ to 66746 for emotional support and resources.”
Wildfires are no longer limited to one season
The flames in Southern California have been fueled by hot, dry conditions and spread by Santa Ana winds, which tend to blow in from the desert in the fall months.
As the LA Fire Department’s Erik Scott pointed out on Twitter, some houses are better protected from fires than others, since green vegetation can help keep back flames.
Wildfire season in California technically runs from late summer through the fall. But as the planet heats up, higher-than-average temperatures and drought conditions are becoming more common. Meanwhile, developers continue to build homes in places that are naturally prone to wildfires.
“Whether it is to allow a rock star to build on a ridgeline in Malibu or a manufactured-home community that nestles into the foothills, the decision is the same and the consequences are the same,” Char Miller, the director of environmental analysis at Pomona College, told the Times.
Ellen Cranley, Bryan Logan, and David Choi contributed reporting.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.