PARADISE, Calif. — A deadly wildfire is nearly contained after several days of rain in Northern California, but searchers are still completing the meticulous task of combing through now-muddy ash and debris for signs of human remains.
Crews planned to resume the grim task Saturday after working on-and-off the day before amid a downpour in the devastated town of Paradise. Some are now looking through destroyed neighbourhoods for a second time as hundreds of people remain unaccounted for. They’re searching for telltale fragments or bone or anything that looks like a pile of cremated ashes.
Searchers wore yellow rain slickers and hard hats to protect against falling branches Friday as they looked for clues that may indicate someone couldn’t get out of their home, such as a car in the driveway or a wheelchair ramp. Craig Covey, who led a team out of Southern California’s Orange County, temporarily pulled his 30-member team off the search as heavy rain and wind knocked down trees.
The nation’s deadliest wildfire in a century has killed at least 84 people, and 475 are unaccounted for. Despite the inclement weather, more than 800 volunteers searched for remains on Thanksgiving and again Friday, two weeks after flames swept through the Sierra Nevada foothills, authorities said.
While rain complicated the search, it also helped nearly extinguish the blaze, said Josh Bischof, operations chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
The Camp Fire ignited Nov. 8 and has destroyed nearly 19,000 buildings, most of them homes. That’s more than the worst eight fires in California’s history combined, the agency said, with thousands of people displaced.
While the rain made everybody colder and wetter, they kept the mission in mind, said Chris Stevens, a search volunteer who wore five layers of clothing to keep warm.
“It doesn’t change the spirits of the guys working,” he said. “Everyone here is super committed to helping the folks here.”
When Covey and several team members were delayed by rain Friday, they took two big brown bags full of lunch to 64-year-old Stewart Nugent, who stayed in his home and fought off flames with a garden house, a sprinkler and a shovel. He has been there for two weeks with his cat, Larry.
The first winter storm to hit California has dropped 2 to 4 inches of rain over the burn area since it began Wednesday, said Craig Shoemaker with the National Weather Service in Sacramento.
The weather service issued a warning for possible flash flooding and debris flows from areas scarred by major fires in Northern California, including the areas burned in Paradise. But Shoemaker said the rain didn’t fall hard enough Friday to cause serious problems. Light showers were expected Saturday, he said.
In Southern California, more residents were allowed to return to areas that were evacuated because of the 151-square-mile (391-square-kilometre) Woolsey Fire as crews worked to repair power, telephone and gas utilities.
About 1,100 residents were still under evacuation orders in Malibu and unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County, down from 250,000 at the height of the fire.
The fire erupted amid strong winds Nov. 8 just west of Los Angeles and burned through suburban communities and wilderness parklands to the ocean, leaving vast areas of blackened earth and many homes in ashes. Three people were found dead, and 1,643 buildings, most of them homes, were destroyed, officials said.
In Northern California, the searchers tried to keep their minds on the task rather than the tragic situation.
“The guys will never say it’s hard,” crew member David Kang said. “But it is.”
Associated Press journalists Olga Rodriguez and Daisy Nguyen in San Francisco and John Antczak in Los Angeles contributed.
Kathleen Ronayne, The Associated Press