California Fires: Blazes Spread as a Decimated Town Is Searched for Bodies

PARADISE, Calif. — Fires whipped by strong winds were raging through thousands of acres of forests and chaparral in both Northern and Southern California on Monday, having already wiped out a town in the Sierra Nevada and forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents west of Los Angeles.

The inferno that incinerated the northern town of Paradise killed at least 29 people and is already the most destructive wildfire in California history, razing a staggering 6,453 homes. The sheriff leading the search for the missing in Paradise gave a bleak and ominous warning: “It’s very early in our effort,” Sheriff Kory L. Honea of Butte County said on Sunday evening. “We have a lot of work to do.” Officials are bracing for the death toll to rise significantly.

Here are the latest developments:

• The Camp Fire, which killed 29 people in Paradise, has already burned more than 110,000 acres and is only about 25 percent contained.

• Sheriff Honea said late Sunday that 228 people were still unaccounted for in Northern California.

• Firefighters battling the Woolsey Fire in Southern California were preparing for it to get worse over the next few days. Two people have died in that fire, which is 20 percent contained and has charred more than 90,000 acres in communities like Malibu and Thousand Oaks.

• Another blaze that has torn through 4,500 acres in Ventura County, the Hill Fire, was 75 percent contained.

• Traffic compounded the problems of those trying to escape Read more here.

• See where the fires have burned in the graphic below.

Allyn Pierce got in his pickup truck and tried to race out of town when the fire swept through Paradise on Thursday. But he hit a wall of flames and was forced to turn around. Dozens of people are grateful that he did. Mr. Pierce helped lead what is being described by many as a heroic effort to treat the wounded in Paradise.

Trapped in traffic as flames licked at the side of his truck, Mr. Pierce watched other cars catch fire and thought his was next. He held his coat against the window — a futile guard from the intense heat — and put on Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” to calm himself. He recorded a goodbye message to his family. “Just in case this doesn’t work out, I want you to know I really tried to make it out,” he recalled.

“Then all of a sudden this bulldozer comes out of nowhere and knocks this burning truck out of the way,” he said. Suddenly there was some room to maneuver. But instead of going forward toward safety, he turned around and headed back into the heart of Paradise, where the fire came from.

Mr. Pierce ended up back at Paradise’s main hospital, Adventist Health Feather River, where he manages the Intensive Care Unit. There he found other colleagues, who were also turned back by the fire, as well as injured Paradise residents looking for medical help.

Adventist Health doctors and nurses, along with paramedics, firefighters and other emergency workers, set up a triage center in the hospital parking lot. They broke into the hospital for gurneys, oxygen tanks, intravenous bags and other gear and quickly went to work, treating about two dozen people while the fire raged around them. “We all worked together — no egos,” Mr. Pierce said. “It was kind of joyful, and amazing to watch it all work.”

Anthropology students watched as human remains were recovered from a home in Paradise.CreditJohn Locher/Associated Press

Then the hospital caught fire next to the triage center. As firefighters fought the flames, the rest of the staff relocated the patients and equipment about 100 yards away to the hospital’s helipad, the only other area of asphalt somewhat safe from the fire. Eventually highway patrol officers said they had cleared a path toward safety, so the team loaded the victims into vehicles and drove in a caravan out of Paradise. Everyone made it out safely.

“This is what we do,” Mr. Pierce said. “I’m not trying to be brave, but any nurse, any health care worker, any cop, they were there and they all did their jobs and they all did it well.”

Blackened hills surrounded the 101 freeway and encircled the city of Thousand Oaks on Monday morning, the first time since the shooting at Borderline Bar & Grill that the city approached anything resembling normalcy. The wind had stayed calm through the weekend, giving fire fighters the chance to make progress — officials said it was roughly 20 percent contained Monday morning, after burning through more than 91,000 acres. But the Santa Ana winds are expected to pick up again on Monday, which could easily mean more embers blowing through the canyons.

Several residents had stopped at a gas station in Calabasas on their way home, said Rashid Stevens, who said he saw cars packed to the brim come through early Monday morning.

“We’re all hoping it calms down here, finally,” he said. “They deserve that at least.”

Inside the evacuation zone, Paradise is a blackened moonscape.

Abandoned homes line the road, lonely horses wag their tails. White smoke lays like a thick comforter above it all.

The fire had come from the east of Paradise, flattening some buildings but not others. Still standing was the Butte County Library. Gone was all of Old Town Plaza. On the main avenue, a tall, friendly-looking prop bear stood with a sign: Welcome to Bearadise. The buildings behind it were gone, now nothing but metal and ash.

On Wagstaff Road, the streets were a bramble of downed power lines, and the destruction was a sign of the fire’s capricious nature.

“Betsy,” read a small cardboard sign with an arrow pointing toward several homes. To the left of the Betsy arrow, fire had blasted through the home, leaving a blackened scaffold of bricks. To the right, the house sat so untouched that its yellow flowers stood tall in their pots, ready for their next watering.

Dick Waugh, 65, pulled up in a black hearse on Sunday afternoon. He wore khakis and round glasses and said he’d been helping a friend remove bodies from the neighborhoods.

Mr. Waugh rolled down his window. He had no mask to protect himself from the smoke. “Everybody here is accustomed to devastation,” he said, noting that the community had seen natural disasters before. “We ain’t never seen nothing like this.”

He wasn’t sure how this would affect him, he said. He hadn’t had time to think about it.

Anyway, he said, he had to go.

Working to extinguish hotspots in a neighborhood damaged by the Woolsey Fire in Malibu, Calif.CreditAndrew Cullen for The New York Times

“I’ll find out next week when it comes bubbling up.”

It’s still not certain what caused the most destructive wildfire in California history, but eyes are turning toward an all too familiar suspect — one of the state’s investor-owned utilities.

Many fires in recent years have been caused by downed power lines. Pacific Gas and Electric Company, which has been blamed for billions of dollars in past fire damage, experienced an outage in Butte County about 15 minutes before the Camp Fire started on Thursday and also reported a damaged transmission tower in the area, according to report filed to state regulators. Officials said they were still investigating the causes of the current fires.

Earlier this year, the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, determined that power lines and poles and other equipment owned by Pacific Gas and Electric was responsible for a dozen fires in Northern California in October 2017 that devastated wine country.

Paul Doherty, a spokesman for PG&E, said the cause of the fire remains under investigation.

PG&E isn’t the only investor-owned utility in California investigated for responsibility related to the state’s wildfires. Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric Company also have been the subject of wildfire investigations.

Edison advised its investors last month that its equipment may have been a source of the Thomas Fire last year in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

In September, California lawmakers passed a measure aimed at protecting against future fires. The legislation, Senate Bill 901, also protects PG&E from liability for such fires by enabling the utility to pass costs on to ratepayers.

Consumer advocates called the bill a bailout and criticized lawmakers for failing to ensure that the power companies fulfilled their responsibilities in maintaining their equipment.

After the bill passed, Moody’s Investors Service downgraded the ratings of the three power companies because concern about utilities’ liability related to wildfires.

The first factor is its climate.

California, like much of the West, gets most of its moisture in the fall and winter. Its vegetation then spends much of the summer slowly drying out because of a lack of rainfall and warmer temperatures. That vegetation then serves as kindling for fires.

But while California’s climate has always been fire prone, the link between climate change and bigger fires is inextricable. “Behind the scenes of all of this, you’ve got temperatures that are about two to three degrees Fahrenheit warmer now than they would have been without global warming,” said Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. That dries out vegetation even more, making it more likely to burn.

But there are other factors, too, including the strong Santa Ana winds and the actions of humans in sparking fires and suppressing them. Read more here.

It’s always important to do your research before donating to charities. Here is a list of nonprofits in California that are seeking donations, as well as specific sites and organizations in Butte County and Southern California.