Hearses stand by as crews search for California fire victims
PARADISE, Calif. — With hearses standing by, crews stepped up the search for bodies in the smoking ruins of Paradise, and relatives desperately looked for more than 100 missing loved ones, as wind-whipped wildfires raged Sunday on both ends of the state.
The statewide death toll stood at 25 and appeared certain to rise.
At least five search teams were working in Paradise — a town of 27,000 that was largely incinerated on Thursday — and surrounding Northern California communities. Authorities called in a mobile DNA lab and anthropologists to help identify victims of the most destructive wildfire in California history. By early afternoon, one of the two black hearses stationed in Paradise had picked up another set of remains.
The search also went on for the missing.
“I still haven’t heard anything,” said Laurie Teague, who was looking for her 80-year-old stepfather, Herb Alderman. She and her brother called shelters, hospitals, the sheriff’s department and the coroner’s office.
“He has friends in that area,” Teague said. “I’m hoping one of them grabbed him and took him to shelter.”
Officials and relatives held out hope that many of those unaccounted for were safe and simply had no cellphones or other ways to contact loved ones.
Sol Bechtold drove from shelter to shelter looking for his mother, Joanne Caddy, a 75-year-old widow whose house burned down along with the rest of her neighborhood in Magalia, just north of Paradise. She lived alone and did not drive.
Bechtold posted a flyer on social media, pinned it to bulletin boards at shelters and showed her picture around to evacuees, asking if anyone recognized her. He ran across a few of Caddy’s neighbors, but they hadn’t seen her.
As he drove through the smoke and haze to yet another shelter, he said, “I’m also under a dark emotional cloud. Your mother’s somewhere and you don’t know where she’s at. You don’t know if she’s safe.”
He added: “I’ve got to stay positive. She’s a strong, smart woman.”
More than 8,000 firefighters in all battled three large wildfires burning across nearly 400 square miles (1,040 square kilometers) in Northern and Southern California, with out-of-state crews continuing to arrive and gusty, blowtorch winds starting up again.
The worst of the blazes was in Northern California, where the number of people killed in that fire alone, at least 23, made it the third-deadliest on record in the state.
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said the county was bringing in more rescue workers and consulted anthropologists from California State University at Chico because, in some cases, investigators have been able to recover only bones and bone fragments.
The devastation was so complete in some neighborhoods that “it’s very difficult to determine whether or not there may be human remains there,” Honea said.
Authorities were also bringing in a DNA lab and encouraged people with missing relatives to submit samples to aid in identifying the dead after the blaze destroyed more than 6,700 buildings, nearly all of them homes.
Firefighters gained modest ground overnight against the blaze, which grew slightly to 170 square miles (440 square kilometers) from the day before but was 25 percent contained, up from 20 percent, according to the state fire agency, Cal Fire.
But Cal Fire spokesman Bill Murphy warned that gusty winds predicted into Monday morning could spark “explosive fire behavior.”
“We’re at a pivotal point now,” said another Cal Fire official, David Clark.
Two people were also found dead in a wildfire in Southern California, where flames tore through Malibu mansions and working-class Los Angeles suburbs alike.
The severely burned bodies were discovered in a long residential driveway in celebrity-studded Malibu, where residents forced from their homes included Lady Gaga, Kim Kardashian West, Guillermo del Toro and Martin Sheen.
A member of the Malibu City Council was burned trying to save his home but was expected to recover.
Flames also besieged Thousand Oaks, the Southern California city in mourning over the massacre of 12 people in a shooting rampage at a country music bar Wednesday night.
Fire officials said Sunday morning that the larger of the region’s two fires, the one that hit Malibu, grew to 130 square miles (337 square kilometers) and was 10 percent contained. But the strong, dry Santa Ana winds that blow from the interior toward the coast returned after a one-day lull, fanning the flames.
The count of lost structures in both Southern California fires climbed to nearly 180, authorities said, and that number seemed certain to rise. The large mobile home community of Seminole Springs, in the rugged Santa Monica Mountains north of Malibu, appeared devastated.
About 300,000 people statewide were under evacuation orders, most of them in Southern California.
Gov. Jerry Brown said he is requesting a major-disaster declaration from President Donald Trump that would make victims eligible for crisis counseling, housing and unemployment help, and legal aid.
Drought, warmer weather attributed to climate change, and the building of homes deeper into forests have led to longer and more destructive wildfire seasons in California. While California officially emerged from a five-year drought last year, much of the northern two-thirds of the state is abnormally dry.
“Things are not the way they were 10 years ago. … The rate of spread is exponentially more than it used to be,” said Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen, urging residents to evacuate rather than stay behind to try to defend their homes.
One of the Northern California fire’s victims was an ailing woman whose body was found in bed in a burned-out house in Concow, near Paradise.
Ellen Walker, who was in her early 70s, was home alone when the fire struck on Thursday, according to Nancy Breeding, a family friend.
Breeding said Walker’s husband was at work and called a neighbor to tell his wife to evacuate, but she was on medication and might not have been alert. He assumed she had escaped the inferno and was trying to find her at rescue centers until authorities confirmed her death late Friday.
“They were married for 20-something years. He’s having a difficult time accepting,” Breeding said. “This is a devastating thing, and it’s happening to so many people.”
Selsky reported from Salem, Oregon. Associated Press writers Janie Har and Daisy Nguyen in San Francisco; Don Thompson in Chico, California; Martha Mendoza in Oroville, California; Christopher Webber in Malibu, California; and John Antczak in Los Angeles contributed to this story.