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California’s Camp Fire Becomes The Deadliest Wildfire In State History

Chris and Nancy Brown embrace while searching through the remains of their ho...

Photo by Noah Berger AP

Above: Chris and Nancy Brown embrace while searching through the remains of their home, leveled by the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif.

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Updated at 10:35 a.m. ET

At least 42 people have died in the Northern California wildfire that burned through the town of Paradise with shocking speed, making the Camp Fire the deadliest in state history. Fire crews are working to fight that blaze, along with another large wildfire in Southern California, where at least two deaths have been reported.

"We certainly hope that the fatality count doesn't increase, but we know there is a strong potential for that" as emergency crews sift through rubble and debris to look for potential victims, Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott told NPR's All Things Considered.

President Trump has approved an expedited request for a disaster declaration for the California fires, saying he wanted "to respond quickly in order to alleviate some of the incredible suffering going on." Trump added in a tweet, "I am with you all the way. God Bless all of the victims and families affected."

The Camp Fire in Butte County, about 80 miles north of Sacramento, has now burned 125,000 acres and is 30 percent contained, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reported Monday night. More than 5,000 personnel are fighting the blaze, which has destroyed more than 6,500 homes and 260 commercial buildings.

"This is an unprecedented event," Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said Monday night, according to Capital Public Radio in Sacramento. "If you've been up there, you also know the magnitude of the scene we're dealing with. I want to recover as many remains as we possibly can, as soon as we can. Because I know the toll it takes on loved ones."

The Camp Fire started last Thursday morning, growing explosively and forcing panicked evacuations. The fire stormed through Paradise, leaving behind near-total devastation. As of Monday night, nearly half of the evacuation centers in Chico, Oroville and nearby towns were at capacity.

"Last night firefighters continued to hold established containment lines," Cal Fire said in an update Tuesday. The agency said firefighters had "worked aggressively" to protect structures in the fire's path, and that they've been working to build fire lines to establish control. But it added that dry conditions and steep terrain will continue to pose a challenge.

As parts of Butte County have been deemed safe, search teams and coroners have found more victims of the fire; the Butte County Sheriff's Office reported late Monday that workers had found 13 more people who had died from the fire, adding to the 29 who had already been located. Overall, 10 sets of remains were found in Paradise and three in neighboring Concow.

More human remains could be found, Honea said, adding that the county is deploying two portable morgue units and will use cadaver dogs to find others who perished.

More than 50,000 people have fled the Camp blaze, according to member station KQED. And even at a distance, the fire is posing health concerns: "Air quality throughout the Bay Area remains in the 'unhealthy' zone, according to federal measurements," KQED reports, adding that the conditions should persist through Friday.

To follow ongoing updates from fire and safety officials about the damage to specific areas in the Camp fire, Cal Fire has published a searchable map that includes photos of affected areas, as work crews inspect neighborhoods.

Full information about evacuations and road closures is listed on the Cal Fire pages for the Camp fire and the Woolsey fire.

To the south, the Woolsey Fire has burned 96,314 acres and is 35 percent contained, Cal Fire said Tuesday morning. The fire that broke out in the Thousand Oaks area — which had already been coping with a mass shooting — is blamed for two deaths.

The Woolsey Fire is estimated to have destroyed 435 buildings. And according to Cal Fire, "83 percent of all National Parks Service land in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area has been burned by the Woolsey Fire."

Although the fire is now 35 percent contained, firefighters are still primarily focused on protecting life and structures, citing "extreme fire behavior" from the blaze that has drawn power from Santa Ana winds.

There are nearly 3,600 fire personnel fighting the Woolsey fire. The effort includes planes that scoop water from the ocean to drop on the flames — as a video posted to Twitter showed on Monday.

"We've got 60 to 70 mph offshore Santa Ana winds blowing for the next several days and those are just deadly," Pimlott said on Monday.

As for what caused the two deadly fires, that remains under investigation. As KQED has reported, two electric utility companies reported service problems just minutes before the Woolsey and Camp fires began. A spokeswoman for the California Public Utilities Commission tells the station that it will incorporate those reports into its investigation.

In June, the California forestry agency blamed 12 wildfires on downed power lines owned by utility giant Pacific Gas and Electric. And in October, Southern California Edison said its equipment was at least in part to blame for the Thomas Fire that burned more than 280,000 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties last year.

The Camp Fire's death toll has grown in staggering leaps. The first notice came on Thursday, when investigators found the remains of five people in Paradise who were apparently trapped in their cars by the blaze. Four more were found on Friday, and 20 more over the weekend.

Of the dead, only four sets of remains have been positively identified by Butte County authorities. The department released the names of three victims whose next of kin had been notified:

  • Ernest Foss, 65, of Paradise
  • Jesus Fernandez, 48, of Concow
  • Carl Wiley, 77, of Magalia

Before the Camp fire struck, the most deadly wildfire in California's history was the Griffith Park blaze, which killed 29 people in Los Angeles in 1933. Last year's Tubbs Fire in Napa and Sonoma counties was blamed for killing 22 people.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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