‘I’m not giving up hope.’ Hundreds missing in California wildfires

Posted at 8:18 AM, Nov 12, 2018

As deadly wildfires that have claimed at least 31 lives continue to scorch California, officials are trying to help people find hundreds of missing loved ones.

Many of the missing are from Butte County, where the most destructive fire in state history is burning.

Some 228 people remain unaccounted for in the Camp fire, county Sheriff and Coroner Kory Honea told reporters Sunday evening. Meanwhile, 107 people previously deemed missing have been found, some in shelters, he said.

Honea said his office had received more than 550 calls from people looking for missing friends and relatives.

The Camp fire -- one of the state's deadliest -- virtually obliterated the town of Paradise, home to more than 26,000 people.

Twenty-nine people have died in the Northern California blaze. Further south, near Los Angeles, the Woolsey fire has claimed two lives.

The National Weather Service warned early Mondaythat "dangerous fire weather" was expected to continue in California.

"A tight pressure gradient will keep producing high winds, and very dry air is in place with low relative humidities. This plus the ongoing drought conditions will all create conditions favorable for fire weather," it said.

Honea said 10 coroner search and recovery teams were helping with the search for Camp fire victims' remains.

'I'm not giving up hope'

Near an evacuation center at the Butte County Fairgrounds in Gridley, Sol Bechtold told CNN affiliate KRON that he was looking for his mother, Joanne Caddy, who had been missing since Thursday.

Holding a poster of his mother in front of him, Bechtold said it had been a rough few days.

"We learned her house was destroyed the other day so don't know what's happened to her -- she's kind of homebound, she doesn't have a car. I need to find my mom -- I'm not giving up hope she's out there," he said.

CNN affiliate KTXL reportedthat many fire victims were still helping others. More than 30 Butte County Sheriff's deputies reported for duty despite losing their homes, the news station reported.

Colusa Police Sgt. Jarrod Hughes told KTXL that his Paradise home had been destroyed in the blaze, but that he had donned his uniform and returned to work once he got his son to safety.

Hughes has been looking for the missing and dead.

"It's my community, it's where I grew up. It's something I absolutely had to do," Hughes said. "There was no question about it. It was get my family to safety so I can get in and get back up there and help everybody else."

The latest

• Camp Fire: The largest of the trio, the Camp Fire has burned 111,000 acres across Northern California and is 25% contained as of Sunday night, according to Cal Fire. It has destroyed an estimated 6,700 buildings, most of which were homes.

• Woolsey and Hill fires: In Southern California, the Woolsey fire had spread to 85,500 acres and was 15% contained Sunday night, up from 5% the night before. The smaller Hill Fire covered 4,531 acres and was 75% contained. Together, the fires are responsible for the destruction of 179 structures, but another 57,000 are threatened, according to fire officials.

• Massive evacuations: More than 300,000 people have been forced from their homes statewide. The majority of those residents are in Los Angeles County, where 170,000 were evacuated.

Winds, climate change provoking fires

Among those to evacuate were some celebrities whose homes have been lost to the fires.

The homes of Miley Cyrus, Neil Young, Robin Thicke and Gerard Butler are among those scorched in the Woolsey blaze. Butler posted a photo on Twitter of the charred remains of a Malibu home and thanked firefighters for their courage. Thicke posted a statement on Instagram thanking firefighters and volunteers who "risked their lives trying to save our home."

In a post on his official website decrying the impact of climate change, Young said "I have lost my home before to a California wildfire, now another."

California Gov. Jerry Brown also lamented the role of climate change in driving the fires.

"This is not the new normal, this is the new abnormal," Brown said. "The chickens are coming home to roost, this is real here."

Resources, including dozens of fire trucks and thousands of firefighters, are pouring in from out of state.

Firefighters on Sunday managed to contain flare-ups generated by high winds in canyons along the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu and Bell Canyon in Ventura County, Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said. But officials warned that the dry conditions feeding the fire are expected to continue into the week and new flare-ups are possible. Though the state's drought has eased slightly, it's still abnormally dry, according to CNN meteorologist Taylor Ward. That leaves a lot of dry vegetation to feed fires.

Osby urged those in mandatory evacuation zones to leave, warning that they can get in the way of firefighting efforts.

"We must remain vigilant and not let our guard down," Osby said.

Crews searching for the dead

Crews on the scenes of the fires are combing through blackened ruins of homes. The number of dead more than doubled late Saturday, and continued to rise on Sunday.

So far, 29 bodies have been recovered in or near Paradise, a town of about 26,000 that's been all but leveled by the Camp fire. Of the six discovered Sunday, five were in homes and one was in a vehicle.

On Sunday, officials confirmed that two deaths in Malibu were related to the Woolsey Fire, bringing the statewide death toll to 31.

The painstaking process of finding the missing and identifying the dead is challenging, with some of the bodies recovered burned beyond recognition.

"In some cases, the only remains we are able to recover are bones or bone fragments," Honea, the Butte County sheriff and coroner, told reporters. "I know that members of the community who are missing loved ones are anxious, and I know that the news of us recovering bodies has to be disconcerting."

Many bodies recovered from the Camp Fire were found inside or near homes or in vehicles, officials said.

Hours after the fire broke out, residents fleeing Paradise became trapped in gridlock traffic as the fire closed in. Some drivers abandoned their vehicles in the chaos and attempted to escape on foot.