- The death toll from two recent California wildfires dropped to 88 people on Monday, after the Butte County sheriff announced that remains thought to be separate cases were “proven by DNA” to be the same person.
- The Camp Fire in Northern California destroyed an entire town in less than a day and killed at least 85 people, making it by far the deadliest fire in the state’s history.
- Both the Camp Fire and the Woolsey Fire on the outskirts of Los Angeles are now 100% contained.
- California wildfires are becoming so frequent and pervasive that local officials say there’s almost no need for the term “wildfire season” anymore.
The death toll from California’s deadliest wildfire on record dropped back to 85 people on Monday, after authorities discovered that separate bags of remains recovered from the Camp Fire were “proven by DNA” to be the same case.
That shred of good news came as workers continue to clear debris and sift for remains in the area of Northern California hit by the Camp Fire. Eleven people are still missing, according to the Butte County Sheriff’s Office, so it’s possible the number of victims could still rise.
Authorities announced on November 25 that the fire, which had raged for over two weeks in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, was 100% contained. The blaze scorched 153,336 acres – an area larger than the city of Chicago.
Widespread rains over the last couple of weeks brought relief to firefighters, but the wet, muddy conditions complicate efforts to locate human remains. Only 43 of the 85 remains have been positively identified to date.
The other deadly wildfire in California, the Woolsey Fire on the outskirts of LA, is also 100% contained, according to the Los Angeles Fire Department. The Woolsey flames burned 96,949 acres and killed three people, bringing the combined death toll from both the Woolsey and Camp fires to 88 (not 91, as previously reported).
This year to date, 7,989 fires have burned across California, fuelled by hot, dry conditions and aggressive winds. The causes of the Woolsey and Camp Fires are still under investigation, but sparking power lines may have played a role in the Camp Fire.
The Camp Fire was the deadliest and most destructive in California’s history
When President Donald Trump visited the wreckage in Paradise, California on November 17, he described the area as “total devastation.”
The fire’s quick spread 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.
Before this, California’s deadliest blaze was a 1933 fire that broke out in LA’s Griffith Park. It killed 29 laborers who were caught unprepared to battle the flames. The Camp Fire’s death toll is almost triple that.
More than 13,900 homes and 500 businesses were destroyed, along with over 4,200 other buildings, making the Camp Fire the most destructive wildfire in California’s history in terms of structures lost.
Searching for human remains among the ash and rain is tricky
Coroner search teams are still looking for victims in Paradise. After the fire receded from the Paradise area, more than 450 people were dispatched to look for human remains in the debris, according to the Associated Press. Abandoned cars in driveways were taken as a potential sign that residents might not have escaped.
More than 800 volunteers spent their Thanksgiving holiday helping to look for victims, the AP reported.
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.
The Butte County Sheriff’s office is working with anthropologists from California State University at Chico to help identify bone fragments among ash in the area. Some residents have given cheek swabs to 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.
Federal money is arriving, but Trump incorrectly 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, Trump 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 criticised 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.”
Trump suggested that’s how Finland prevents forest fires, but the president of Finland said it’s not true.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency 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.”
Over $US20 million in federal aid has been distributed so far, according to the agency, mostly in the form of hotel vouchers and other housing assistance.
The aid is much needed among fire victims who lost everything. Troy Miller, a Butte County resident, was 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 on November 19. “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 travelled hundreds of miles and made San Francisco air unhealthy to breathe for weeks
Smoke from the Camp Fire made it difficult for people in many parts of Northern California to breathe for nearly two weeks.Soot and chemicals released from the flames blanketed wide swaths of the state in a grey haze.
In the days after the fires broke out, the Environmental Protection Agency described the air throughout much of the Bay Area as “unhealthy” or “very unhealthy” to breathe.
Federal air monitors suggested that residents limit time outside and avoid outdoor exercise. San Francisco public schools shuttered their doors on November 16, and 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, is now back to normally healthy numbers. The US Department of the Interior estimates that the Camp and Woolsey Fires together “produced emissions equivalent to roughly 5.5 million tons of carbon dioxide.”
The Woolsey fire burned nearly 97,000 acres near LA and killed three people
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, ‘Mum 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.
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 fuelled 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.
Michelle Mark, Bryan Logan, and David Choi contributed reporting.