Firefighters begin to see progress against deadly California blazes, as death toll rises to 59

Some residents allowed to return home in So. Cal.; list of Nor. Cal. missing released

Firefighters begin to see progress against deadly California blazes, as death toll rises to 59
Drone footage from Paradise, CA, captured the charred neighborhoods, houses and cars left behind by the Camp Fire. (Source: CNN)

PARADISE, CA (AP/RNN) - Firefighters in California appeared to begin to turn the tide on Wednesday against three major wildfires that have devastated parts of the state this week, as the tragic toll of the fires became clearer.

While crews made progress in containing the fires to the point where some residents were being allowed to return home in Southern California, officials released a list of about 100 people still unaccounted for in the wake of the Camp Fire, which devastated parts of the state’s north.

That list included many people in their 80s and 90s, the Associated Press reported. Officials said late Wednesday they had found eight more bodies in Northern California, bringing the death toll there to 56, many of them from Paradise, a town of more than 26,000 that has virtually been destroyed.

With three deaths from the Woolsey Fire in the south, the statewide death toll stood at 59.

The Hill Fire, which charred the Thousand Oaks area just days after a mass shooting at a bar there, was 94 percent contained, Cal Fire tweeted. The Woolsey Fire, which burned down homes in star-studded Malibu, was 52 percent contained, and some residents in the area were being allowed to return home.

A third Southern California fire which broke out on Tuesday night, the Sierra Fire, was 85 percent contained as residents of Rialto breathed a sigh of relief that it did not leave a similar path of destruction.

The deadly Camp Fire was 35 percent contained and a fire official told the Associated Press that crews had “managed to slow the spread” of the blaze thanks to cooler weather, higher humidity and calmer winds.

More than 5,600 firefighters have battled the fires in the state.

At an afternoon press conference, California Office of Emergency Services Director Mark Ghilarducci said officials were moving “into now the recovery process, as we’re starting to work with local communities to frame that up."

Part of that relief came in the form of disaster unemployment assistance being made to people in Butte, Ventura and Los Angeles counties on Wednesday, the sites of the three fires.

The Camp Fire has destroyed nearly 8,000 structures, 7,600 of them residences, burning down Paradise almost entirely. A Cal Fire spokesman, Scott McLean, said “the town center is completely on the ground” after the fire ripped through the community.

According to Cal Fire another almost 500 structures were destroyed in the Woolsey Fire.

“This is so devastating that I don’t really have the words to describe it," said California Gov. Jerry Brown. "It looks like a war zone. It is. It’s the devastation that only fires of this kind can bring about.”

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Tens of thousands of people remain under evacuation orders, down from a high of as many as 250,000. More than 52,000 people were displaced in the north.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said that 100 National Guard troops would help teams already looking for remains.

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The search for the dead was drawing on portable devices that can identify someone’s genetic material in a couple of hours, rather than days or weeks.

“We want to be able to cover as much ground as quickly as we possibly can,” Honea said. “This is a very difficult task.”

Together, the fires have burned more than 230,000 acres in California.

The Camp Fire is the deadliest in the state’s history, and one of its most destructive. Before the Paradise tragedy, the deadliest single fire on record in California was a 1933 blaze in Griffith Park in Los Angeles that killed 29.

The causes of the fires remain under investigation, but two utilities reported equipment trouble around the time they broke out.

People who lost homes in the Camp Fire sued Pacific Gas & Electric Co. Tuesday, accusing the utility of negligence and blaming it for the fire.

PG&E did not maintain its infrastructure and failed to properly inspect and manage its power transmission lines, according to the lawsuit filed in state court by more than two dozen fire victims.

The company lost more than 20 percent of its value just on Wednesday as it disclosed it did not have enough insurance to cover being found liable for the toll of the fire.

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