PARADISE, California—A deadly wildfire is nearly contained thanks to several days of rain in Northern California. But search crews are still completing the meticulous task of combing through ash and debris that are now damp and muddy.
Searchers planned to resume their grim task Saturday after working on-and-off the day before because of a downpour over Paradise, California. Some are now looking through destroyed neighborhoods for a second time as hundreds of people remain unaccounted for. They’re searching for telltale fragments or bone or anything that looks like a pile of cremated ashes.
Search teams on Nov. 22, wore yellow rain slickers and hard hats to protect against falling branches as they quietly looked for clues that may indicate someone couldn’t get out, such as a car in the driveway or a wheelchair ramp. They looked not only for bone, but anything that could be a pile of cremated ashes. Craig Covey, who led a team out of Southern California’s Orange County, temporarily pulled his 30-member team off the search as heavy rain and wind knocked down trees and caused dangerous conditions.
The nation’s deadliest wildfire in the past century has killed at least 84 people, and 475 are still unaccounted for. Despite the inclement weather, more than 800 volunteers searched for remains on Thanksgiving and again Friday, two weeks after flames swept through the Sierra Nevada foothills, authorities said.
While rain complicated the search, it also helped nearly extinguish the blaze, said Josh Bischof, operations chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Once the rain clears, state officials will be able to determine if the blaze is fully out, he said.
The Camp Fire ignited Nov. 8 and has destroyed nearly 19,000 buildings, most of them homes. That’s more than the worst eight fires in California’s history combined, the agency said, with thousands of people displaced.
While the rain made everybody colder and wetter, they kept the mission in mind, said Chris Stevens, who wore five layers of clothing to keep warm.
“It doesn’t change the spirits of the guys working,” he said. “Everyone here is super committed to helping the folks here.”
The volunteers interrupted by rain Friday found other ways to help.
Covey and several team members took two big brown bags full of lunch to 64-year-old Stewart Nugent, who stayed in his home and fought off flames with a garden house, a sprinkler and a shovel. He has been there for two weeks with his cat, Larry.
The first winter storm to hit California has dropped 2 to 4 inches of rain over the burn area since it began on Nov. 21, said Craig Shoemaker with the National Weather Service in Sacramento.
The weather service issued a warning for possible flash flooding and debris flows from areas scarred by major fires in Northern California, including the areas burned in Paradise.
Shoemaker said Friday afternoon that about a quarter-inch of rain was falling per hour, not enough to cause serious problems. An inch of rain per hour would be more difficult, he said.
The rain was expected to subside by midnight, followed by light showers Saturday, he said.
In Southern California, more residents were allowed to return to areas that were evacuated because of the 151-square-mile Woolsey Fire as crews worked to repair power, telephone and gas utilities.
About 1,100 residents were still under evacuation orders in Malibu and unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County, down from 250,000 at the height of the fire.
The fire erupted just west of Los Angeles amid strong winds on Nov. 8 and burned through suburban communities and wilderness parklands to the ocean, leaving vast areas of blackened earth and many homes in ashes. Three people were found dead, and 1,643 structures, most of them homes, were destroyed, officials said.
In Northern California, the workers on the ground tried to keep their minds on the task at hand rather than the tragedy of the situation.
“The guys will never say it’s hard,” said David Kang, a member of the search team from Orange County. “But it is.”
By Kathleen Ronayne