by Josh Edelson / Laurent Banguet
Agence France Presse
PARADISE, United States (AFP) — Thousands of firefighters spent a fifth day Monday digging battle lines to contain California’s worst ever wildfire as the wind-whipped flames cleaved a merciless path through the state’s northern hills, leaving death and devastation in their wake.
The Camp Fire — in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains north of Sacramento — has killed 29 people, matching the state’s deadliest ever brush blaze 85 years ago. More than 200 people are still unaccounted for, according to officials.
It is the largest of several infernos that have sent a quarter of a million people fleeing their homes across the tinder-dry state, with winds of up to 60 miles (100 kilometers) per hour fanning the fast-moving flames.
As well as the historic loss of life, the blaze is also more destructive than any other on record, having razed 6,500 homes in the town of Paradise, effectively wiping it off the map.
Some 4,500 firefighters from as far as Washington and Texas have been working to halt the advance of the inferno as “mass casualty” search teams backed by anthropologists and a DNA lab pick through the charred ruins to identify remains — sometimes reduced to no more than shards of bone.
At least 31 people have died in fire zones in north and south California, where acrid smoke has blanketed the sky for miles, the sun barely visible.
On the ground, cars caught in the flames have been reduced to scorched metal skeletons, while piles of debris smolder where houses once stood, an occasional brick wall or chimney remaining.
The Camp Fire has matched the 1933 Griffith Park disaster in Los Angeles — until now the single deadliest wildfire on record — according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).
Police say 228 people are unaccounted for in the Paradise area, although many may be among the 1,400 in emergency shelters outside of the danger zone.
Glenn Simmons, 64, told AFP in the nearby town of Chico that he had been sleeping in his car since Thursday, unable to find a space in a shelter.
“I was planning on maybe moving out of state, or into southern California… Everything is burned up. I have my clothes and I have a backpack, and that’s pretty much it,” he said.
The Camp Fire has reduced around 17 square miles (45 square kilometers) of Butte County’s forested hills mostly to charred wasteland — an area which hasn’t seen rainfall of more then half an inch (one centimeter) in more than 30 weeks.
Three firefighters have been injured in the effort to quell its advance.
At the southern end of the state, another three firefighters have been injured battling the Woolsey Fire, which has devoured mansions and mobile homes alike in the coastal celebrity resort of Malibu.
The blaze is similar in size to the Camp Fire but has been much less destructive, and the body count has been limited to two victims found in a vehicle on a private driveway.
‘The new abnormal’
While some Malibu-area residents were allowed to return home late Sunday, the city of Calabasas, just northeast of coastal Malibu, came under evacuation orders.
“This is not the new normal, this is the new abnormal. And this new abnormal will continue, certainly in the next 10 to 15 to 20 years,” California Governor Jerry Brown said Sunday in a stark warning over the likely damaging effects of climate change.
“Unfortunately, the best science is telling us that the dryness, warmth, drought, all those things, they’re going to intensify.”
Over the weekend, the Woolsey Fire engulfed parts of Thousand Oaks, where the community is still shell-shocked after a Marine Corps veteran shot dead 12 people in a country music bar on Wednesday.
The blaze has consumed around 85,500 acres (34,600 hectares), destroyed at least 177 buildings and was only 15 percent contained, Cal Fire said.
Singer Miley Cyrus’s home was one of the buildings destroyed in southern California.
“Completely devestated (sic) by the fires affecting my community. I am one of the lucky ones. My animals and LOVE OF MY LIFE made it out safely & that’s all that matters right now,” she tweeted.
“My house no longer stands but the memories shared with family & friends stand strong.”
Many of the affected area’s residents own horses, and for the past days Twitter has been flooded with messages from people seeking and offering help.
Actor James Woods, a rare political conservative in liberal Hollywood, has made new friends by using his Twitter account to help find missing people and getting help for pets, including horses.
The Ventura County Humane Society said it was “deeply humbled” by a $100,000 donation from actress Sandra Bullock and her family to rescue and care for animals evacuated from the fires.
© Agence France-Presse