California wildfire death toll hits 63

Sheriff says hundreds still missing in nation’s deadliest wildfire

At least 63 people are now dead from a Northern California wildfire, and officials say they have a missing persons list with 631 names on it in an ever-evolving accounting of the victims of the nation’s deadliest wildfire in a century.

The high number of missing people probably includes some who fled the blaze and don’t realize they’ve been reported missing, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said. He said he’s making the list public so people can see if they are on it and let authorities know they survived.

“The chaos that we were dealing with was extraordinary,” Honea said of the early crisis hours last week. “Now we’re trying to go back out and make sure that we’re accounting for everyone.”

Some 52,000 people have been displaced to shelters, the homes of friends and relatives, to motels — and to a Walmart parking lot and an adjacent field in Chico, a dozen miles away from the ashes.

RELATED: Northern California wildfire is deadliest in state history

At the vast shelter parking lot, evacuees from California’s deadliest fire wonder if they still have homes, if their neighbours are still alive — and where they will go when their place of refuge shuts down in a matter of days.

“It’s cold and scary,” said Lilly Batres, 13, one of the few children there, who fled with her family from the forested town of Magalia and didn’t know whether her home survived. “I feel like people are going to come into our tent.”

The Northern California fire that began a week earlier obliterated the town of Paradise . Searchers have pulled bodies from incinerated homes and cremated cars, but in many cases, the victims may have been reduced to bits of bones and ash. The latest toll: 63 dead and 9,800 homes destroyed.

At the other end of the state, more residents were being allowed back into the zone of a wildfire that torched an area the size of Denver west of Los Angeles. The fire was 62 per cent contained after destroying nearly 550 homes and other buildings. At least three deaths were reported.

Air quality across large swaths of California remains so poor due to huge plumes of smoke that schools from Sacramento to the Pacific Coast were closed on Friday, and San Francisco’s iconic open-air cable cars were pulled off the streets.

Northern California’s Camp Fire was 40 per cent contained Thursday, but there was no timeline for allowing evacuees to return because of the danger. Power lines are still down, roads closed, and firefighters are still dousing embers, authorities said.

Anna Goodnight of Paradise tried to make the best of it, sitting on an overturned shopping cart in the parking lot and eating scrambled eggs and tater tots while her husband drank a Budweiser.

But then William Goodnight began to cry.

“We’re grateful. We’re better off than some. I’ve been holding it together for her,” he said, gesturing toward his wife. “I’m just breaking down, finally.”

More than 75 tents had popped up in the space since Matthew Flanagan arrived last Friday.

“We call it Wally World,” Flanagan said, a riff off the store name. “When I first got here, there was nobody here. And now it’s just getting worse and worse and worse. There are more evacuees, more people running out of money for hotels.”

Word began to spread Thursday that efforts were being made to phase out the camp by Sunday, by gradually removing donated clothing, food and toilets.

“The ultimate goal is to get these people out of tents, out of their cars and into warm shelter, into homes,” said Jessica Busick, who was among the first volunteers when she and her husband started serving free food from their Truckaroni food truck last week. “We’ve always known this isn’t a long-term solution.”

A Sunday closure “gives us enough time to maybe figure something out,” said Mike Robertson, an evacuee who arrived there on Monday with his wife and two daughters.

It’s unclear what will be done if people don’t leave Sunday, but city officials don’t plan to kick them out, said Betsy Totten, a Chico spokeswoman. Totten said volunteers — not the city — had decided to shut down the camp.

Walmart has added security to the location and is concerned about safety there, but it is not asking people to leave, spokeswoman LeMia Jenkins said.

Some, like Batres’ family, arrived after running out of money for a hotel. Others couldn’t find a room or weren’t allowed to stay at shelters with their dogs, or in the case of Suzanne Kaksonen, her two cockatoos.

Kaksonen said it already feels like forever since she’s been there.

“I just want to go home,” she said. “I don’t even care if there’s no home. I just want to go back to my dirt, you know, and put a trailer up and clean it up and get going. Sooner the better. I don’t want to wait six months. That petrifies me.”

Some evacuees helped sort immense piles of donations that have poured in. Racks of used clothes from sweaters to plaid flannel shirts and tables covered with neatly organized pairs of boots, sneakers and shoes competed for space with shopping carts full of clothes, garbage bags stuffed with other donations and boxes of books. Stuffed animals — yellow, purple and green teddy bears and a menagerie of other fuzzy critters — sat on the pavement.

Food trucks offered free meals and a cook flipped burgers on a grill. There were portable toilets, and some people used the Walmart restrooms.

Someone walking through the camp Thursday offered free medical marijuana.

Information for contacting the Federal Emergency Management Agency for assistance was posted on a board that allowed people to write the names of those they believed were missing. Several names had the word “Here” written next to them.

RELATED: Wildfire death toll rises in California as search for missing continues

Melissa Contant, who drove from the San Francisco area to help out, advised people to register with FEMA as soon as possible, and to not reveal too much information about whether they own or rent homes or have sufficient food and water, because that could delay aid.

“You’re living in a Walmart parking lot — you’re not OK,” she told Maggie and Michael Crowder.

Kathleen Ronayne And Brian Melley, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

William Griffin arrested in Houston homicide

RCMP have now arrested William Griffin, the man wanted in connection to… Continue reading

UNBC faculty strike enters second week in Terrace

Students, BC Nurses Union, and MP Taylor Bachrach visited picketing lines Friday

Family of Terrace man killed in hit-and-run plead for tips, one year later

Cameron Kerr’s family says the driver and passengers tried to cover their tracks

Hwy 16 traffic delay due to washout between Terrace and Prince Rupert

Alternating single-lane traffic is in effect, 66 km west of Terrace

Coast Mountain College’s indigenization efforts recognized at international symposium

Collaboration and community are key to Indigenous reconciliation in education, CMTN says

VIDEO: B.C. couple creates three-storey ‘doggie mansion’ for their five pups

Group of seven, who Kylee Ryan has dubbed as the ‘wandering paws,’ have a neat setup in Jade City

Port Alberni mom takes school district to court over Indigenous smudging, prayer in class

Candice Servatius, who is an evangelical Christian, is suing School District 70

Princeton couple pays for dream vacation with 840,000 grocery store points

It’s easy if you know what you are doing, they say

B.C. municipality wants ALC to reconsider their decision in regard to pipeline work camp

The ALC had rejected the construction of the Coastal GasLink work camp behind the Vanderhoof airport in October

Chilliwack family’s dog missing after using online pet-sitting service

Frankie the pit bull bolted and hit by a car shortly after drop off through Rover.com

B.C. wildlife experts urge hunters to switch ammo to stop lead poisoning in birds

OWL, in Delta, is currently treating two eagles for lead poisoning

B.C. First Nations drop out of court challenge, sign deals with Trans Mountain

Upper Nicola Band says deal represents a ‘significant step forward’

VIDEO: B.C. man trapped under ATV for days shows promise at Victoria hospital

Out of induced coma, 41-year-old is smiling, squeezing hands and enjoying sunshine

Most Read