PARADISE, Calif. — With at least 130 people still missing, National Guard troops searched Wednesday through charred debris for more victims of California’s deadliest wildfire as top federal and state officials toured the ruins of a community completely destroyed by the flames.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke joined Gov. Jerry Brown on a visit to the leveled town of Paradise, telling reporters it was the worst fire devastation he had ever seen.
“Now is not the time to point fingers,” Zinke said. “There are lots of reasons these catastrophic fires are happening.” He cited warmer temperatures, dead trees and the poor forest management.
Brown, a frequent critic of President Donald Trump’s policies, said he spoke with Trump, who pledged federal assistance.
“This is so devastating that I don’t really have the words to describe it,” Brown said, saying officials would need to learn how to better prevent fires from becoming so deadly.
Nearly 8,800 homes were destroyed when flames hit Paradise, a former gold-mining camp popular with retirees, on Nov. 8, killing at least 56 people in California’s deadliest wildfire, Sheriff Kory Honea announced Wednesday evening. There were also three fatalities from separate blazes in Southern California.
Honea said the task of searching for bodies was so vast that his office brought in another 287 searchers Wednesday, including the National Guard troops, bringing the total number of searchers to 461 plus 22 cadaver dogs. He said a rapid-DNA assessment system was expected to be in place soon to speed up identifications of the dead, though officials have tentatively identified 47 of the 56.
It will take years to rebuild the town of 27,000, if people decide that’s what should be done, said Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains looks like a wasteland.
“The infrastructure is basically a total rebuild at this point,” Long said. “You’re not going to be able to rebuild Paradise the way it was.”
Temporary schools and hospitals will be brought in, Long said. Officials are also looking to bring in mobile homes for thousands of people left homeless.
Debris removal in Paradise and outlying communities will have to wait until the search for victims finishes, he said.
Search goes on
That grim search continued Wednesday.
On one street, ash and dust flew up as roughly 20 National Guard members wearing white jumpsuits, helmets and breathing masks lifted giant heaps of bent and burned metal, in what was left of a home. Pink and blue chalk drawings of a cat and a flower remained on the driveway, near a scorched toy truck.
The soldiers targeted homes of the missing. If anything resembling human remains is found, a coroner takes over.
After the soldiers finished at the site, a chaplain huddled with them in prayer.
The number of missing is “fluctuating every day” as people are located or remains are found, said Steve Collins, a deputy with the Butte County Sheriff’s Department.
Authorities on Wednesday released the names of about 100 people who are still missing, including many in their 80s and 90s, and dozens more could still be unaccounted for. Sheriff’s department spokeswoman Megan McMann said the list was incomplete because detectives were concerned they would be overwhelmed with calls from relatives if the entire list were released.
“We can’t release them all at once,” McMann said. “So they are releasing the names in batches.”
Authorities have not updated the total number of missing since Sunday, when 228 people were unaccounted for.
Sol Bechtold’s 75-year-old mother was not on the list. Her house burned down along with the rest of her neighborhood in Magalia, a community just north of Paradise.
“The list they published is missing a lot of names,” said Bechtold, who’s still searching shelters for his mother, a widow who lived alone and did not drive.
A sheriff’s deputy asked Bechtold on Wednesday for information that could identify her remains, like any history of broken bones. He told the officer she had a knee replacement. Bechtold predicted that the death toll would rise sharply.
“I feel horrible for the sheriff. I feel horrible for the people of Paradise and Magalia,” he said. “It’s just a no-win situation unless a few hundred folks just show up out of nowhere.”
To speed up identification of remains, officials are using portable devices that can identify genetic material in a couple of hours, rather than days or weeks.
Escaping the flames
Accounts of narrow escapes from the flames continued to emerge. More than a dozen people who were trapped by a wall of fire survived by plunging into a cold lake.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported Wednesday that a family of four, their 90-year-old neighbor and their pets sought safety in the chilly Concow Reservoir after the roaring fire surrounded their homes.
The family stood in shoulder-deep water as flames singed the vegetation on the shore behind them. Not far away, at least a dozen others rushed into the lake after the caravan of vehicles they were in was cut off by flames.
Before the Paradise tragedy, the deadliest single fire on record in California was a 1933 blaze in Griffith Park in Los Angeles that killed 29.
The cause of the fires remained under investigation, but they broke out around the time and place that two utilities reported equipment trouble.
People who lost homes in the Northern California blaze sued Pacific Gas & Electric Co. on Tuesday, accusing the utility of negligence and blaming it for the fire. An email to PG&E was not returned.