Monday 23 September 2019

1,000 missing presumed dead As us wildfire still burns

Flames driven by howling winds raced through town where a hi-tech evacuation plan only complicated escape, writes Terray Sylvester

Remains of at least 71 people have been recovered in and around the small Sierra foothills town 280km north of San Francisco. Photo: AP
Remains of at least 71 people have been recovered in and around the small Sierra foothills town 280km north of San Francisco. Photo: AP

Terray Sylvester

Forensic recovery teams searched for more victims in the charred wreckage of the northern California town of Paradise yesterday as the number of people listed as missing in the state's deadliest wildfire topped 1,000.

Remains of at least 71 people have been recovered in and around the small Sierra foothills town 280km north of San Francisco.

It was home to nearly 27,000 residents before it was largely incinerated by the blaze on the night of November 8.

The disaster already ranks among the deadliest US wildfires since the turn of the last century. Eighty-seven people perished in a firestorm that swept the Northern Rockies in August 1910. Minnesota's Cloquet Fire in October 1918 killed 450 people.

US President Donald Trump, who has blamed the recent spate of fires on forest mismanagement, was due to visit the fire zones yesterday to meet displaced residents. Governor Jerry Brown and Governor-elect Gavin Newsom planned to join Trump on his tour.

Authorities attribute the high death toll from the blaze - dubbed "Camp Fire" - partly to the speed with which flames raced through the town with little advance warning, driven by howling winds and fuelled by drought-desiccated scrub and trees.

More than a week later, firefighters have managed to carve containment lines around 45pc of the blaze's perimeter.

The fire covered 142,000 acres (57,000 hectares), fire officials said.

Besides the toll on human life, property losses from the blaze make it the most destructive in California history, posing the additional challenge of providing long-term shelter for many thousands of displaced residents.

With more than 9,800 homes destroyed, many refugees have taken up temporary residence with friends and family, while others have pitched tents or were camping out of their vehicles.

At least 1,100 evacuees were being housed in 14 emergency shelters set up in churches, schools and community centres around the region, with a total of more than 47,000 people remaining under evacuation orders, authorities said.

Search teams with search-dogs combed through rubble-strewn expanses of burned-out neighbourhoods looking for bodies.

Last Friday, Butte County Sheriff Korea Honea said the remains of eight more fire victims were recovered during the day, bringing the death toll to 71. That surpasses the previous fatality record from a single California wildfire - 29 in the Griffith Park fire of 1933 in Los Angeles.

Honea said the number of people unaccounted for had swelled to 1,011 - up from the 630 names posted last Thursday night and well more than triple the number counted as missing last Thursday afternoon.

"This is a dynamic list," Honea told reporters, saying it was compiled from "raw data" that was likely to include some duplications or multiple spellings of names.

Honea bristled when asked whether many of those listed at this point, more than a week after the disaster, were expected to end up either deceased or declared missing and presumed dead.

"I don't think it's appropriate for any of us to sit and speculate about what the future holds," he said. As of last Friday, he said, 329 individuals previously reported missing had turned up alive.

The names were being compiled from information received from a special hotline, along with email reports and a review of 911 calls that came in on the first night of the fire, Honea said.

Some listed have probably survived but not yet notified family or authorities. Others may not have been immediately listed because of delays in reporting them.

Weather conditions have since turned more to firefighters' favour, though strong, gusty winds and lower humidity were expected to return early today, ahead of rain showers forecast for mid-week.

The outbreak of Camp Fire coincided with a series of smaller blazes in Southern California, most notably the Woolsey Fire, which is linked to three fatalities and has destroyed at least 500 buildings near the Malibu coast west of Los Angeles.

Scientists have said the growing frequency and intensity of wildfires in California and elsewhere across the West are largely attributable to prolonged drought that is symptomatic of climate change.

The precise causes of the Camp and Woolsey Fires were under investigation, but electricity providers had reported equipment problems near both blazes around the time they erupted.

When the "megafire" engulfed Paradise, officials and residents had to abandon their evacuation plans and improvise new ways to save lives, learning lessons that may help the growing number of regions at risk to wildfires.

As strong winds sent flames roaring into Paradise at two miles per minute, emergency personnel and locals realised their escape plans, crafted after a 2008 blaze, would not work.

As Paradise was engulfed around 8am on November 8, officials attempted a staggered evacuation using an alert system to target one zone at a time.

The idea was to avoid the panic and chaos that ensued in 2008 when all 27,000 residents tried to flee at once - blocking roads and leading to panic.

With the fire toppling power lines and mobile towers, and residents jamming networks with calls, about 60pc of alerts were delivered. However as only between 25pc-50pc of residents had signed up for the optional system, just 30pc of households - at best - were alerted.

As the town burned, officials abandoned the phased evacuation and told everyone to get out.

Locals said an old-fashioned siren system would have been a better system.

"People who are not connected to the internet or phone need to know there is a fire," said one resident.

Paradise widened, paved and straightened roads after the 2008 blaze to allow for a speedier evacuation. But the Camp Fire burned across all escape routes.

"The flow plan didn't work," said one local official. "We couldn't flow huge amounts of traffic down an available highway because there was no available highway."

On the ground, residents fought to escape the town.

Hospital nurse Darrel Wilken got word around 8am that the fire was seven miles away. By 8.15am trees outside his window at the Feather River Hospital were on fire. There was no time to gather ambulances to evacuate the 67 patients as staff had trained to do.

"If your car was not on fire, you were the ambulance," said Wilken, who loaded three patients into his Subaru WRX.

His designated escape route was blocked by flames. He wove through back streets and a slalom of burning vehicles, his car exterior melting from the heat, trees and electricity poles falling on vehicles ahead, before reaching safety hours later.

As Wilken fled, firefighters and volunteers including resident Mike Boggs tried to get into town. Police had turned all exit routes into contraflows, a move that sped up the evacuation, but obstructed first responders trying to enter Paradise. Boggs went off road and drove up a ditch in his pickup, followed by a fire truck. The 60-year-old iron worker credits a decision after the 2008 blaze with saving his home in Butte Valley, near Paradise. He bought 40 cattle that grazed on grass that would have otherwise fed the fire.

"Everywhere I put my cows it didn't burn," he said.

One of the biggest lesson from the Camp Fire was that for residents facing a fast-advancing fire, it may sometimes be better to shelter in open spaces, like road intersections, than try to outrun the flames.

"It would be ugly - but you'd survive," he said.


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