Firefighters Battle Deadly California Wildfires, At Least 31 Dead

Firefighters are battling two deadly California wildfires that have claimed at least 31 lives, left more than 200 people missing and put a quarter million residents under evacuation, while unhealthy smoke levels have prompted warnings to stay indoors.

Source: WSJ - Jim Carlton | Published on November 12, 2018

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The Camp Fire in Butte County, about 100 miles north of Sacramento, grew slightly to a total of 109,000 acres on Sunday, after destroying an estimated 6,500 homes and 260 businesses, mostly in the city of Paradise. At least five victims of the fire were found trapped in charred vehicles as they tried to flee the fast-moving blaze, authorities said.

Already ranked as the most destructive wildfire in California history, the Camp Fire has now tied the deadliest on record, matching the 29 fatalities in a 1933 inferno. Officials of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, said teams have been deployed to search for the 228 people listed as missing as of Sunday night, some of whom they said could be alive but trapped in rubble.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said his detectives have learned that many of the missing are believed to be in evacuation shelters, but they have yet to verify that.

A quarter million people remained evacuated on Sunday amid fears that the infernos that broke out Thursday could flare up again, as dense smoke made air unhealthy for millions from San Francisco to San Diego.

In Southern California, the Woolsey Fire expanded to 83,275 acres Sunday morning, after leaving an estimated 177 homes and other structures destroyed in Ventura and Los Angeles counties and at least two known fatalities. More than 200,000 people remained evacuated from their homes on Sunday, including in Thousand Oaks where a gunman fatally shot 12 people in the Borderline Bar and Grill before apparently taking his own life.

While the forward progress of the fire slowed, officials said families affected by the shooting remained devastated by the tragic events. “You go through the shooting, and then immediately after that without a moment to breathe the fires began,” said Maj. Osei Stewart of the Salvation Army, which has been serving 1,000 meals a day to evacuees at five shelters in Ventura County. “The families are caught dealing with grief, and at the same time having to evacuate and really run for their lives.”

Before the evacuation, residents in the Thousand Oaks area were still digesting the horrors of what happened at the Borderline on Wednesday night. Then, at about 2 p.m., an inferno broke out a few miles away in Ventura County that was dubbed the Hill Fire. Less than a half-hour later, another broke out closer to the shooting scene that became the raging Woolsey Fire.

Dave Malacrida, who lives about 3 miles from the shooting in Agoura Hills, said his wife, Nancy Ram, began tracking the two wildfires on Twitter and noticed as the evening wore on that the Woolsey was taking aim in their direction. Finally, at about 11 p.m.—with a glow from the approaching fire looming nearer, she said, “Dave, we have to leave,” said Mr. Malacrida, a 56-year-old public relations executive.

As flames neared, the couple loaded their 2-year-old daughter and a few clothes and personal items they could scrape together into an Acura and fled to stay with a friend in Los Angeles.

While their home was spared, the family remained away Sunday under a continuing evacuation order. Mr. Malacrida said he and his wife had faced losing most of their belongings, but they had taken that in stride. “The bottom line is you have to accept you have only yourself, your friends and your life,” he said. “All these other things you can replace.”

A lull in winds enabled firefighters to build more containment lines around both wildfires, bringing the one in Butte County to 25% under control and the Woolsey fire to 10%. Also, lower-than-forecast temperatures and a rise in humidity have been aiding firefighters in Northern California, Cal Fire spokesman David Clark said.

But winds were expected to pick up in the north. They already did in Southern California, where Kenichi Haskett, spokesman for the Los Angeles County Fire Department, said he had seen chairs and tables overturned by strong gusts Sunday morning. Still, he said, “crews will continue to battle steep terrain, limited access and extreme fire behavior.”

Impacts of the fires were felt in cities far away as unhealthy smoke levels prompted warnings for people to stay indoors across California. In the San Francisco Bay Area—which on Saturday had pollution readings twice as high as Beijing—half marathons scheduled for Sunday in Napa Valley and the Monterey Bay were canceled, while high-school football playoffs were postponed and teams including the National Football League’s San Francisco 49ers moved some drills inside.

The smoke and fire have caused major traffic disruptions. On Friday, hundreds of flights were delayed at San Francisco International Airport because of low visibility caused by smoke billowing in from the Camp Fire about 150 miles away. In Southern California, parts of two of the busiest roadways—Highway 101 and the Pacific Coast Highway—have been closed since Thursday because of the wildfires, adding to the region’s massive traffic congestion.

President Trump angered state and fire officials by sending off tweets Friday and Saturday blaming the recent outbreak of fires on what he called the state’s poor forest management, and in one threatening to cut off billions in federal funding. California Gov. Jerry Brown said late Sunday the state was doing a lot on forest management and could do more but criticized the Trump administration for not addressing climate change.

“Those who deny that are definitely contributing to the tragedies that we are now witnessing and will continue to witness,” said Mr. Brown, referring to wildfires.

Harold Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, on Saturday issued a statement saying: “To minimize the crucial, lifesaving work being done and to make crass suggestions such as cutting off funding during a time of crisis shows a troubling lack of real comprehension about the disaster at hand and the dangerous job our firefighters do.”

The fires come unusually late in California, which normally should be seeing the start of its rainy season. But the Golden State has been suffering from extreme dry conditions for years, because of what fire experts call a combination of fuel buildup, drought and a warming climate. Indeed, 14 of the 20 most destructive fires in California history have taken place since 2000, including the Tubbs Fire in the Santa Rosa area last year that destroyed 5,636 structures and killed 22, according to Cal Fire records.

Experts say the danger is compounded by the push of development deeper into fire-prone wilderness areas, not only in California but across the West.

“We have a landscape that is in a condition to support high intensity fires, coupled with urban sprawl,” said Steve Smith, fire behavioral specialist at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.