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California fires: Number of missing soars over 1,000 as Paradise reels from unfathomable losses

  • Author: Alene Tchekmedyian, Nicole Santa Cruz and Javier Panzar Los Angeles Times
  • Updated: November 17, 2018
  • Published November 17, 2018

Residences leveled by the wildfire line a neighborhood in Paradise, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said Thursday the wildfire that destroyed the town of Paradise is now 40 percent contained, up from 30 percent Wednesday morning. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

CHICO, Calif.-- An army of searchers moved through the rubble of Paradise in a desperate search Friday to find more victims of California’s worst fire on record as the number of people missing skyrocketed.

The death toll from the devastating Camp fire rose to 71 Friday, while the number of people reported missing jumped to more than 1,000, authorities said.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea told reporters at a Thursday afternoon news conference that search crews had recovered eight more bodies in the burn area.

The number of people unaccounted for rose to 1,011, up from 631 on Thursday evening, after authorities combed through additional 911 calls, emails and other reports generated at the peak of the chaotic evacuation.

Honea said that number may include some people who are counted twice or others who may not know they were reported missing.

The staggering toll was announced as President Donald Trump made plans to visit California to meet with people affected by the wildfires. It would mark his second trip as president to the nation's most populous state.

The Camp fire is by far the worst wildfire in recorded California history. By Thursday evening, the blaze had chewed through 141,000 acres and 11,862 structures, destroying an entire town in hours. Officials said it could take weeks to complete the search for victims. Thousands of survivors are without homes, living in shelters and tent cities.

A search and rescue team combs through the debris for possible human remains at Paradise Gardens, in Paradise, Calif., on Friday, Nov. 16, 2018. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
A search and rescue team collects and documents suspected human remains from an apartment complex burned down in the Camp fire in Paradise, Calif., on Friday, Nov. 16, 2018. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
A sign warning to looters sits in the foreground of burned properties in the aftermath of the Camp fire that tore through Paradise, Calif., on Friday, Nov. 16, 2018. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Tera Hickerson, right, and Columbus Holt embrace as they look at a board with information for services at a makeshift encampment outside a Walmart store for people displaced by the Camp Fire, Friday, Nov. 16, 2018, in Chico, Calif. The two, from Paradise, Calif., escaped the fire and don't know if their house is still standing. (AP Photo/John Locher)
A firefighter searches for human remains in a trailer park destroyed in the Camp Fire, Friday, Nov. 16, 2018, in Paradise, Calif. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Investigators recover human remains at a home burned in the Camp Fire, Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018, in Magalia, Many of the missing in the deadly Northern California wildfire are elderly residents in Magalia, a forested town of about 11,000 north of the destroyed town of Paradise, Calif. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Mandatory evacuation orders were lifted in some areas and reduced to warnings as fire crews on the front lines boosted containment to 40 percent.

"What that means is, if conditions change and fire begins to threaten that area, you have to be ready to go," Honea said.

The fire is also causing a major public health problem as smoke choked huge swaths of Northern California, including Sacramento and the Bay Area. Dozens of schools across the region canceled classes as authorities urged residents to remain indoors.

At a town hall meeting in Chico late Thursday, Denise Davis showed up to reconnect with her community. There, the 53-year-old Paradise resident saw a neighbor whom she last saw in a driveway carrying someone else's dog during evacuations.

This community, she said, is why she's coming back.

"That's why we're going to rebuild," she said.

Jim Broshears, the town's emergency operations center coordinator, told the audience of more than 100 that the town will rebuild.

"We're determined to start rebuilding the community _ from you, up," he said. "You are the foundation of the community."

But Mark Brown, the deputy incident commander for the fire, said the breadth of the devastation was like nothing he'd ever seen.

"It's at the scale of unprecedented magnitude," he said.

In Southern California, fire officials were optimistic Thursday that improved weather might help them get the upper hand against the devastating Woolsey fire. The blaze has charred 98,362 acres and claimed three lives in Los Angeles and Ventura counties since it broke out last week. More than 500 structures have been destroyed.

Firefighters stopped the fire's expansion and increased containment to 62 percent by Thursday evening. The gains came as strong winds that battered the region for three days finally diminished _ a welcome development for those on the front lines.

"I think we're all hoping today will be a turning point for us in this fight," said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Chris Anthony. "But we're not ramping down. This is a huge fire, and there's still a lot of containment that needs to be done."

In this Nov. 10, 2018, Patrick Knuthson walks along his property near trees burned in the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif. Knuthson a fourth-generation local struggled to make sense of what he was seeing. He pointed out what used to be a saloon-style pub, his favorite Mexican restaurant, a classic California motel, the pawn shop, a Real Estate office, a liquor store, entire trailer parks and other places. Paradise, Calif., literally went up in smoke in the deadliest, most destructive wildfire in California history. (AP Photo/John Locher)
FILE - This Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018 shows the remains of the Gold Nugget Museum, which was totally demolished by the Camp Fire, in Paradise, Calif. Paradise, Cali., literally went up in smoke in the deadliest, most destructive wildfire in California history. And memories are all that’s left for many of the survivors. They recall a friendly place where the pace was relaxed, where families put down roots and visitors opted to stay. (AP Photo/Martha Mendoza, File)
FILE - In this Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018 file photo smoke hangs over the scorched remains of Old Town Plaza following the wildfire in Paradise, Calif. Most homes are gone, as are hundreds of shops and other buildings. The supermarket, the hardware store, Dolly-O-Donuts & Gifts where locals started their day with a blueberry fritter and a quick bit of gossip, all gone. The town quite literally went up in smoke and flames in the deadliest, most destructive wildfire in California history. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)
The Golden Gate Bridge is obscured by smoke and haze from wildfires Friday, Nov. 16, 2018, in this view from Fort Baker near Sausalito, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Authorities are urging residents to stay cautious as the rainy season approaches and to prepare for potential mudflows in burned-out areas. Rain could arrive in the Los Angeles area late next week, according to extended weather forecasts. But meteorologists with the National Weather Service said it’s too soon to tell how much _ if any _ rain to expect.

Across Northern California on Friday, people were dealing with unhealthy air quality from the fire.

Unrelenting smoke smothers everything in Chico. The acidic and sour haze hangs on hair, skin and clothes. Some evacuees don't have access to showers and clean towels, and the smoke from the deadly Camp fire feels impossible to escape.

Hair is like a sponge and absorbs the smoke, said Holly Little, owner of Bleached Salon. The small salon on Manzanita Avenue is one of several offering free hair washes, blowouts and more to evacuees.

At the nail counter, Paradise resident Laina Floraday was getting a free manicure Friday after finding out about the service from a friend.

Floraday fled the Camp fire with her two young children, including one who has special needs, and her three dogs. Her house, her childhood home that she bought, was destroyed. Her husband spent four hours trapped near Pentz Road Market and eventually got out.

"It was traumatizing," Floraday said.

She swapped stories about the fire and its aftermath with Megan Killingsworth, another Bleached Salon owner. Killingsworth said the salon started offering the services because she and Little felt helpless.

"We don't have money to give people," she said. Her phone buzzed with texts from displaced people seeking to book appointments.

Before leaving, Floraday took a free dry hairwash sample and an air mask from the salon.

At JCPenney’s hair salon at the Chico Mall, an elderly woman _ an evacuee from the fire _ was getting her hair washed Friday in one of the salon’s black chairs. Her head was back, her eyes were closed.

A few hundred people, men and women, have come in for the salon's free hair services since the fire broke out, assistant manager Michelle Alconero said.

She said it wasn't a corporate decision _ stylists decided to offer the services to evacuees.

“It’s a moment to be normal,” Alconero said. “There’s a lot of stress.”

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