Death toll from California wildfires rises as 130 still missing

Desk Report :: The toll in the deadliest wildfires in recent California history climbed to 59 on Wednesday
as authorities released a list of 130 people still missing.

Most of those unaccounted for are from the Butte County town of Paradise,
in northern California, which was virtually erased from the map by the so-
called “Camp Fire” blaze that erupted last week.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea told journalists Wednesday evening that
461 search and rescue personnel and 22 cadaver dogs were involved in the
effort to locate those missing and DNA testing was being expedited to
identify the victims.

“Beginning Thursday, anyone who believes a family member perished can
provide a DNA sample” to the sheriff’s office, Honea said.

Paradise, a town of around 26,000 in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada
mountains, was popular with retirees and many of those reported missing by
the sheriff’s office are elderly — in their 70s, 80s and 90s.

Virtually every home in Paradise, located 80 miles (130 kilometers) north
of the state capital Sacramento, was destroyed by the fast-moving fire fueled
by high winds.

At least 59 deaths have been reported so far from the devastating
wildfires and body recovery teams were going house-to-house with cadaver dogs
in Paradise on Wednesday.

“We are in the midst of a catastrophe,” Governor Jerry Brown told a press
conference. “The fire was unprecedented, overwhelming, so a lot of people got

Brock Long, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said
Paradise was looking at a “total rebuild” with many homes, businesses and
infrastructure destroyed.

“This is going to be a very long and frustrating event for the citizens of
Paradise,” Long said. “We’re going to have to find a new normal.”

“You’re not going to be able to rebuild Paradise the way it was.”

An AFP reporter in Paradise on Wednesday saw crews removing trees,
repairing fences along roads and towing away cars.

Authorities said livestock owners were being allowed in to restricted
areas for brief periods to feed the animals but it was unclear when residents
would be allowed back in.

– Tales of courage, survival –

Fifty-six deaths have been reported from the “Camp Fire,” mostly in
Paradise, while three people have died in the “Woolsey Fire.”

Honea said that of the 56 human remains found in his county, 47 had been

While the cause of the “Camp Fire” is still under investigation, a lawsuit
has been filed against the local power company, PG&E, by fire victims
claiming negligence by the utility.

The complaint alleged that the fire began on November 8 when a high
voltage transmission line failed, igniting a vegetation fire.

As thousands of firefighters fought the fires, incredible tales have
emerged of courage and survival.

A man who asked to be identified by only his first name, Scott, told the
San Francisco Chronicle that when the “Camp Fire” surrounded his home in
Concow in Butte County he and his family plunged into a reservoir along with
a 90-year-old neighbor, Bruno.

“Bruno was saying, ‘Just leave me. I can’t do this,’” Scott, 51, told the
newspaper. “I said, ‘Bruno, we’re not going to leave you. And I’m not going
to burn, so you better hurry.’”

They remained in the cold water as flames licked the shore and made their
way to a small island in the reservoir after finding a pair of rowboats.

– ‘I was terrified’ –

Allyn Pierce, a nurse in Paradise, told The New York Times and CNN how his
life was saved by a bulldozer driver as he fled the town in his pickup truck
along with other residents on Thursday.

Pierce said cars were catching fire around him and he dictated a goodbye
message to his family, expecting his vehicle to catch fire next.

“I stayed calm but I was terrified,” Pierce said.

“Then all of a sudden this bulldozer comes out of nowhere and knocks this
burning truck out of the way,” he said.

Instead of fleeing to safety, however, Pierce turned around and went back
to the Adventist Health Feather River Hospital, where he works as an
intensive care nurse, and helped evacuate patients to the hospital’s helipad.

Pierce displayed pictures of his Toyota pickup truck which he said was
still working despite lights which had melted and a rear passenger door which
had been welded shut by the heat from the fire.

The “Camp Fire” has ravaged 135,000 acres (54,632 hectares) of land and is
35 percent contained, according to Cal Fire.

It has destroyed some 7,600 homes and 260 commercial properties. Battling
the blaze are more than 5,600 fire personnel, some from as far away as
Washington state and Texas.

The “Woolsey Fire” has razed 97,620 acres (39,505 hectares) and has been
47 percent contained.

Cal Fire said more than 3,500 fire personnel were battling the “Woolsey
Fire,” which has destroyed the Malibu homes of several celebrities including
Miley Cyrus, Neil Young, Robin Thicke, Shannen Doherty and Gerard Butler.