California Wildfires Updates: 42 Dead in Camp Fire, Toll Expected to Rise

PARADISE, Calif. — Search teams were heading back into the devastated town of Paradise on Tuesday with the grim expectation of finding more bodies in the charred remnants of the Sierra Nevada retirement community. With a toll of 42 dead, the blaze is already the deadliest wildfire in California history, and more than 200 people remain missing.

Adding to the 13 coroner teams from across the state who were already working to locate the dead in and around Paradise, the Butte County sheriff announced a sharp increase in experts who specialize in finding human remains: 150 additional search-and-rescue personnel, cadaver dogs, and two portable temporary morgue units from the military. The sheriff is also seeking a machine to “expedite the analysis of DNA” to speed up the identification of remains.

Here are the latest developments:

• The Camp Fire, as the blaze that ripped through Paradise is known, is only about 30 percent contained, and has burned 125,000 acres. It continues to rage in the hills and ravines east of the city of Chico.

• It is also the most destructive wildfire in California history, with more than 7,600 structures destroyed, most of them homes.

• Two people have died in the Woolsey Fire, which is burning west of Los Angeles and has swept through parts of Malibu. About 435 structures have been destroyed, and as many as 57,000 structures are believed to be under threat. The fire is 35 percent contained and has charred more than 96,000 acres. A flare-up on Tuesday morning led to warnings that additional evacuations could be imminent.

• The Hill Fire in Ventura County has been kept to about 4,500 acres and is 90 percent contained.

• With winds gusting up to 86 m.p.h. in San Diego County on Tuesday and a red-flag fire warning in effect, a utility company turned off electric power in some areas, and at least five school districts canceled classes. Around 25,000 customers in the county were without power, either from precautionary shutdowns or from losses caused by heavy winds.

• President Trump said on Twitter Monday evening that he had approved a request to declare the fires in California a major disaster, making people affected by the fires eligible for various types of federal government support.

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

Smoke still rose on Tuesday from tree stumps in the evergreen forests that run through Paradise. A number of homes were untouched by flames that first swept into the town on Thursday, but they were the exceptions.

Typical of the destruction was Yorktown Manor, a cul-de-sac where only two of a dozen homes were still standing. The kick drum of a child’s drum set, strewn incongruously in the driveway, was one of only a few clues of who lived in now incinerated homes.

Paradise had a population of 27,000 before the fire, including many retirees but also families with children seeking a reprieve from the crippling costs that have made many California cities unaffordable.

Under mandatory evacuation since the fire, Paradise is now emptied of its residents. The streets are quiet, flecked by the ash that falls like snowflakes.

The sparse traffic on Tuesday included emergency vehicles and trucks from the electric utility. But there were signs of the grim search underway, black hearses traveling to and from the main hospital, their hazard lights flashing through the smoke haze.

Josh Bischof, an operations section chief for Cal Fire, said Tuesday morning that crews were making progress on containing the fire and keeping it away from populated areas.

“Winds are decreasing,” said Jim Mathews, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Sacramento. “But conditions are still dry.”

The inferno that ravaged the wooded town of Paradise in Northern California last week became the deadliest wildfire in the state’s modern history on Monday when officials said they had discovered the remains of 13 more people, bringing the death toll to 42.

Firefighters worked to contain the Woolsey Fire in Malibu, Calif., on Tuesday.CreditEric Thayer for The New York Times

“My sincere hope is that I don’t have to come here each night and report a higher and higher number,” the Butte County sheriff, Kory L. Honea, said at a news conference on Monday night.

[Here’s how you can help those affected by the fires.]

The authorities on Monday night released the names of three people who were killed: Ernest Foss, 65, from Paradise; Jesus Fernandez, 48, from Concow; and Carl Wiley, 77, from Magalia.

The death toll in the Camp Fire surpassed the Griffith Park Fire of 1933, which killed 29 people and for decades had held the infamous distinction of being California’s deadliest wildfire.

[Read more about the Griffith Park Fire.]

Cheri Hoover, 37, arrived Monday night at a shelter in Oroville — or at least, at the shelter’s dirt parking lot, where she pitched her tent.

Another wildfire three years ago left her homeless, she said, and she has made do living in a tent ever since. She was ordered to evacuate her campsite three days ago, but refused to leave until Monday night.

“Better to be out here,” Ms. Hoover said, sitting in her small, cluttered tent with her Chihuahua. “I wanted to leave room for more people in there,” she said, nodding toward the church buildings-turned-shelter, where she has been going in to get food and water. “And I’m used to living in a tent,” she said.

Among the missing in Paradise are many older residents of the Ridgewood Mobile Home Park, a close-knit retirement community of 97 pastel-colored homes, where residents were so tightly bound that they ate together, took walks together and often prayed together, bowing their heads at the mailbox, or in the middle of the street, when they heard of another’s misfortune. Just 20 or so of those people have been accounted for by the park’s owner, Glen Fuller.

Ridgewood was flattened by the fire, a remarkable feat of destruction even for a blaze defined by its speed and brutality. Because the fire came from the east — the park sits east of downtown — it is likely that the people of Ridgewood were among the first to be hit by the flames. Compounding the danger, many of the residents were older, making a hasty escape difficult.

This means that those who have made it out — chased by the sound of exploding propane tanks — have been left to wait for news of the people they cared for most.

“It’s awful — it’s just awful,” said Sheila Schriber Cox, 64, a retired family counselor who fled with her dog Daisy, leaving behind her walker, her oxygen tank and a stack of Bibles she’d meant to distribute.

[Read more about Ridgewood residents’ anxious wait for news.]

A line of burned-out cars on the side of a road. The charred remains of an old pickup truck, brightened by a pristine American flag draped over the cab. Desperate residents fleeing, cars packed with people and family heirlooms, anything that could be frantically scooped up.

One after another, the images could be from any number of conflict zones. But this is California.

As the state once again battles devastating wildfires north and south, at every point in the panorama of disaster underway there is a semblance of war — the scenes, the scents, the sounds, the emotions, and even the language of firefighting, of “aerial assaults” and “boots on the ground.”

War, of course, with its human causes and combatants, is not the same as a natural disaster, even though they can sometimes feel the same for those caught in the middle.

“There’s visual similarities in the disorder and chaos and smoke and fire and all that,” said Robert Spangle, who lives in Malibu and served in the Marine Corps, with two deployments to Afghanistan.

Malibu remained under evacuation orders on Tuesday morning, but other nearby cities were slowly reopening to residents. State officials said that residents of Hidden Hills and people from parts of Calabasas, Westlake Village and Agoura Hills were being allowed back to their properties.

And it is not only the destruction that is reminding people of a war zone. Read more about the camaraderie of those banding together to fight the fires and help their neighbors.