A northern California wildfire that destroyed a small hillside village has become the state’s deadliest fire this year with 10 confirmed deaths – and the death toll could rise as researchers search for 16 missing.
Authorities said the northern compound fire that started in the blaze of wind earlier in the week was progressing slower on Friday after the winds eased and smoke from the flames kept the area and the temperature lowered, allowing firefighters to make progress.
However, the smoke caused poor visibility and the helicopters were unable to fly on Thursday.
In most parts of the state, the severe fire hazard warning has been raised due to hot, dry weather or gusty winds.
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Just a day or two ago, the Northern Compound fire broke out across the foothills of the Sierra Nevada so quickly that firefighting crews were nearly overwhelmed, locals fled to save their lives to a pond, and the town of Berry Creek, of 525, was devastated.
On Thursday, Capt. Derek Bell, the mayor of Butte County, said seven bodies had been found, taking the total to 10 in two days. At least four people with severe burns were hospitalized.
Bell said lawmakers and investigators were searching for human remains as they made their way into the devastated areas with a team of anthropologists from Chico State University.
The Sacramento B newspaper reported that burnt, overturned cars, broken power lines and building debris littered Berry Creek and surrounding areas. I found one hatchback on a dirt road with three dead dogs inside, while a pickup truck had the remnants of a guitar case and CDs dissolved in the bed.
More than 2,000 homes and other buildings were burned in the fire, which began several weeks earlier as a group of fires that lit lightning northeast San Francisco. The final outcome is expected to be much higher. Damage assessment teams planned to start a systematic search of the burned areas on Friday.
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A prayer for good tidings
Among those who lost their fate were Sandy Butler and her husband, who called their son to tell that they would try to escape from the flames by finding shelter in a pool.
“We still hope and pray for the good news,” said Jessica Fallon, who has two children who are grandsons of servants and considers them her grandparents. “Everything is replaceable, but not my grandparents’ lives. I’d rather lose everything for these two things. They were kind of family together.”
Fallon said she was filling hospitals with phone calls in search of her grandparents. There was no news of them late Thursday night.
The speed and ferocity of the fire stunned observers, even those who recalled a fire just two years earlier that killed around 85 people and devastated the town of Paradise, a few miles away from the current fire.
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Residents blocked the main road outside the city on Wednesday, amid falling ash and a red sky. The authorities raised a warning about the evacuation of paradise on Thursday, but the authorities urged people to remain alert.
The flames engulfed the firefighting crew on Wednesday when the winds turned and their personnel fled with minor injuries after spreading out to emergency shelters. It was the second time in two days that California firefighters had to make a rare last effort to save their lives.
The blaze is among 29 major forest fires burning from the Oregon border to northern Mexico. More than 12,500 square kilometers have burned so far this year – more than Rhode Island, Delaware, and Washington, D.C. combined – and autumn is usually the worst fire season. 19 people were killed and at least 4,000 buildings burned across California.
“It is a historic season on top of a historic season that has replaced a historic one. We continue to set new precedents, then continue to destroy them,” said Sean Norman, a battalion commander at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Smoke exploded in vineyards in wine country north of San Francisco, rising over the scenic Big Sur on the Central Coast and in the foothills and mountains of Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Diego in the southern part of the state.
US President Donald Trump spoke with California Governor Gavin Newsom “to express his condolences for the loss of life and to affirm the administration’s full support to assist those on the front lines with the fires,” said White House spokesman Judd Deere.