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Grim search for more fire victims, 31 dead across California

KTLA/CNN: Thousands of California residents have evacuated their homes due to wildfires, including celebrities Kim Kardashian West and Alyssa Milano

Updated: 8:39 a.m. November 12, 2018

PARADISE, Calif. (AP) — As wildfires raged at both ends of California, officials released another grim statistic: Six more dead in a swath of Northern California wiped out by fire, raising the death toll there to 29. It matched California's record for deaths in a single fire and brought the statewide total to 31 as authorities stepped up searches for bodies and missing people.

Another 228 remain unaccounted for. Two people were killed in a wildfire in Southern California.

Ten search teams were working in Paradise — a town of 27,000 that was largely incinerated last week — and in surrounding communities in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Authorities called in a DNA lab and teams of anthropologists to help identify victims.

Statewide, 150,000 remained displaced as more than 8,000 fire crews battled wildfires that have scorched 400 square miles (1,040 square kilometers), with out-of-state crews continuing to arrive. Whipping winds and tinder-dry conditions threaten more areas through the rest of the week, fire officials warned.

"This is truly a tragedy that all Californians can understand and respond to," Gov. Jerry Brown told reporters. "It's a time to pull together and work through these tragedies."

Brown, who has declared a state of emergency, said California is requesting aid from the Trump administration. President Donald Trump has blamed "poor" forest management for the fires. Brown said federal and state governments must do more forest management but that climate change is the greater source of the problem.

"And those who deny that are definitely contributing to the tragedies that we're now witnessing, and will continue to witness in the coming years," he said.

Drought and warmer weather attributed to climate change, and the building of homes deeper into forests have led to longer and more destructive wildfire seasons in California. While California officially emerged from a five-year drought last year, much of the northern two-thirds of the state is abnormally dry.

Firefighters battling fire with shovels and bulldozers, flame retardant and hoses expected wind gusts up to 40 mph (64 kph) overnight Sunday.

In Southern California , firefighters beat back a new round of winds Sunday and the fire's growth and destruction are believed to have been largely stopped. Malibu celebrities and mobile-home dwellers in nearby mountains were slowly learning whether their homes had been spared or reduced to ash. Two people were killed and the fire had destroyed nearly 180 structures.

Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby stressed there were numerous hotspots and plenty of fuel that had not yet burned, but at sunset he said there had been huge successes despite "a very challenging day."

Celebrities whose coastal homes were damaged or destroyed in a Southern California wildfire or were forced to flee from the flames expressed sympathy and solidarity with less-famous people hurt worse by the state's deadly blazes, and gave their gratitude to firefighters who kept them safe. Actor Gerard Butler said on Instagram that his Malibu home was "half-gone," adding he was "inspired as ever by the courage, spirit and sacrifice of firefighters."

Flames also besieged Thousand Oaks, the Southern California city in mourning over the massacre of 12 people in a shooting rampage at a country music bar on Wednesday night.

In Northern California, where more than 6,700 buildings have been destroyed, the scope of the devastation was beginning to set in even as the blaze raged on.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said the county consulted teams of anthropologists because, in some cases, investigators have been able to recover only bones and bone fragments.

In some neighborhoods "it's very difficult to determine whether or not there may be human remains there," Honea said.

Public safety officials toured the Paradise area to begin discussing the recovery process. Much of what makes the city function is gone.

"Paradise was literally wiped off the map," said Tim Aboudara, a representative for International Association of Fire Fighters. He said at least 36 firefighters lost their own homes, most in the Paradise area.

"Anytime you're a firefighter and your town burns down, there's a lot of feelings and a lot of guilt and a lot of concern about both what happened and what the future looks like," he said. "Every story that we've heard coming through has been that way, like 'I wish I could have done more, What's going to happen to our community, Where are my kids going to go to school?'"

Others continued the desperate search for friends or relatives, calling evacuation centers, hospitals, police and the coroner's office.

Sol Bechtold drove from shelter to shelter looking for his mother, Joanne Caddy, a 75-year-old widow whose house burned down along with the rest of her neighborhood in Magalia, just north of Paradise. She lived alone and did not drive.

As he drove through the smoke and haze to yet another shelter, he said, "I'm also under a dark emotional cloud. Your mother's somewhere and you don't know where she's at. You don't know if she's safe."

The 29 dead in Northern California matched the deadliest single fire on record, a 1933 blaze in Griffith Park in Los Angeles, though a series of wildfires in Northern California's wine country last fall killed 44 people and destroyed more than 5,000 homes.

Firefighters made progress against the blaze, holding containment at 25 percent on Sunday, but they were bracing for gusty winds predicted into Monday morning that could spark "explosive fire behavior," California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Bill Murphy said.

Fire officials are bracing for potentially more fires in Southern California's inland region as high winds and critically dry conditions were expected to persist into next week.

"We are really just in the middle of this protracted weather event, this fire siege," Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott said.

He said officials were moving resources and preparing for "the next set of fires" as winds are expected to pick up. The chief warned that fire conditions will continue until the parched state sees rain.

"We are in this for the long haul," Pimlott said.


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November 10

7:15 p.m. 

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea says his department has reports of 110 people still missing in a massive Northern California wildfire that has scorched 164 square miles (425 square kilometers).

Honea says he's hopeful that more of those missing people will be located. The department initially had more than 500 calls about citizens who were unable to reach loved ones.

But he says they've been able to help locate many.

Next he says sheriff's officials will be cross-checking their list with official shelters to search for the remaining missing.

Honea said Saturday that 23 people have died in the fire near Paradise, about 180 miles (290 kilometers) northeast of San Francisco.

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7 p.m.

Authorities plan to step efforts to recover and identify people who died in a Northern California wildfire that has killed 23 people.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea says he will add another coroner's team to help find bodies in burned areas, and he ordered a DNA lab truck to assist in identifying human remains.

He said in some cases, investigators have only found bones or bone fragments. They are receiving expertise from anthropologists from nearby California State University, Chico.

Honea said 14 bodies were recovered Saturday, bringing the death toll to 23. The fire north of Sacramento has destroyed more 6,700 structures and driven more than 52,000 people from their homes.

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6:30 p.m.

The death toll in the wildfire that tore through a Northern California community has risen to 23.

The Butte County Sheriff says investigators recovered 14 additional bodies Saturday, three days after the fire broke out. He says some of the victims were found in cars and in houses.

The fire has become the third-deadliest in California history.

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6:10 p.m.

Sharon Black said she left nearly everything behind when she and her husband fled their home in the Pine Springs Mobile Home Park in Paradise on Thursday morning.

"My neighbor came over from next door and told me, 'You'd better get out.' Then we lost power and knew we had to go," she said.

Black said there were flames on both sides of the road as they left town. She doesn't have a cellphone and wasn't able to contact loved ones until Friday.

The 68-year-old has lived in Paradise for about 15 years and says she still doesn't know if her neighbors are OK and has no way to contact them. She also doesn't know if her home survived.

One of the things she left behind was her wedding ring. "They turned off the power right away, so I didn't find anything because it was dark," Black said.

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6 p.m.

Authorities in Southern California are lifting some evacuation orders in a wildfire zone.

Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub said Saturday that the evacuations will be lifted after a day of calm winds and progress against the smaller of two wildfires burning since Thursday.

Sheriff's officials say the evacuations are being called off for the community of Camarillo Springs, parts of Newbury Park and the area of Cal State Channel Islands.

It's not clear how many people are being allowed to return home. But it's a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands evacuated from the two blazes, and the return of dangerous winds Sunday could keep them out of their homes for several more days.

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5:35 p.m.

Authorities say two people found dead in a Southern California wildfire were severely burned and sitting in a stopped vehicle.

Los Angeles County sheriff's chief John Benedict said at a news conference Saturday that the vehicle was sitting on a long residential driveway in Malibu when it was found.

Authorities had announced the deaths earlier in the day, but no details were given. Benedict said nothing about the identities of the two who had died.

County fire Chief Daryl Osby says the fire grew no bigger on Saturday than the 109 square miles it had already burned, and firefighters now have the blaze 5 percent contained.

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5:30 p.m.

Sheriff's deputies have recovered human remains from at least five homes as they went house-to-house in the Northern California city of Paradise canvassing for the missing.

Teams of deputies worked with cadaver crews Saturday to sift through the rubble of burned homes. It was unclear if the remains found Saturday were in addition to the nine fatalities already reported by the Butte County Sheriff's Department.

The sheriff's department did not immediately return a phone call seeking more information. Officials were expected to give a briefing Saturday evening with the latest figures.

Paradise, with a population of 27,000, was destroyed by the fire.

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4:40 p.m.

When the fire broke out in Paradise, state Fish and Wildlife warden Jake Olsen was one of many law enforcement agents who rushed to a retirement home to evacuate the infirm. He crammed three patients into his pickup, and his partner rode under a fire blanket in the bed with a fourth patient.

Meanwhile, the Paradise home where he and and his wife and four children lived burned to the ground. So did Olsen's parents. And his wife's parents' home is gone, too. His sister-in-law's Paradise home was also destroyed.

On Saturday, his colleague helped him sift through the rubble and found his wife's wedding ring.

A few minutes later, she called to check in and he tearfully told her the good news.

'It's something," he said with a sad smile.

His wife told Olsen where she left her ring in their bedroom, and that's where it was found next to his gun locker containing guns melted in the fire.

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3:30 p.m.

Nothing was left but the horses for a Southern California rancher.

Arik Fultz and his family spent Saturday morning sifting through the charred remains of their 40-acre horse ranch near Malibu, but nothing was left after it was hit by Southern California wildfires that had burned more than 100 square miles and destroyed at least 150 homes.

Fultz tells The Associated Press it's incredible to see it all gone just 24 hours after everything was fine.

Fultz and his family lost two houses, two barns, three trailers and decades of possessions.

All 52 of their horses survived. Most rode out the flames in open pastures.

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3:25 p.m.

Alyssa Milano says her home has been spared by a Southern California wildfire that forced her family to evacuate.

The actress tweeted Saturday that her house "is still standing" a day after she and thousands of others were forced to hurriedly evacuate because of the fast-moving fire.

Milano on Friday asked for help evacuating her five horses, later updating that they and her family were safe.

Numerous stars are waiting to learn the fate of their homes and prized possessions. Rainn Wilson tweeted Saturday that flames came within about a dozen yards of his home, but it was spared. Lady Gaga tweeted late Friday that she did not know the status of her home.

Authorities have said more than 150 homes have burned in the fire and that number would likely rise.

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3:00 p.m.

President Donald Trump is taking a more empathetic tone in tweeting about California's devastating wildfires.

Early Saturday, the president threatened to withhold federal payments to California, claiming its forest management is "so poor." He also remarked that "there is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly fires in California." And he blamed what he called "gross mismanagement of the forests."

By late Saturday afternoon, Trump's tone had changed. In a tweet, he noted that tens of thousands of acres had been burned and said, "Our hearts are with those fighting the fires, the 52,000 who have evacuated, and the families of the 11 who have died."

Trump closed by saying, "God Bless them all."

The president is in Paris for events commemorating the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

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2:35 p.m.

The president of the California firefighters union says President Donald Trump's threat to withhold federal funds to California is "shameful" and "dangerously wrong."

In his first comment on the massive wildfires, Trump tweeted Saturday "so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!"

California Professional Firefighters President Brian Rice says the "shameful attack" on California is an attack on the thousands of firefighters on the front lines.

Rice says Trump's assertion that California's forest management policies are to blame for catastrophic wildfire is "dangerously wrong."

He points out wildfires are sparked and spread "by parched vegetation, high winds, low humidity and geography."

Rice says natural disasters are not red or blue, "they destroy regardless of party."

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1:00 p.m.

Jan McGregor returned to his small two-bedroom home in Paradise on Saturday with the help of his firefighter grandson, who escorted him past roadblocks.

The 81-year-old McGregor found his home leveled and three of his cars burned down to the frames.

The fire was not a complete surprise to McGregor, who has lived in this heavily forested town since infancy.

He says "we knew it was coming. We didn't know when."

McGregor has lived in Paradise for 80 years after moving here as an infant in 1939, when the town had just 3,000 people and was nicknamed Poverty Ridge.

McGregor said he would likely not rebuild, even though he has insurance, and is considering moving out of state to live with other family members.

He adds "I have nothing here to go back to."

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12:35 p.m.

Authorities in Northern California have ordered residents to leave four small communities southeast of a town leveled by a deadly wildfire.

The Butte County Sheriff's Office on Saturday issued an evacuation order for the communities of Berry Creek, Bush Creek, Mountain House, and Bloomer Hill.

More than 50,000 people have been displaced by the blaze that has killed at least nine people and devastated the town of Paradise, where all 27,000 residents were ordered to evacuate.

Officials say better weather is helping them gain ground but they're bracing for high winds that could spread the fire to other communities.

National Weather Service meteorologist Alex Hoon says the area will see winds of up to 30 miles per hour (48 kilometers per hour) with ridges seeing gusts of up to 50 mph (80 kph) starting Saturday night

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11:40 a.m.

A farm owner says she stayed behind during evacuations for a raging wildfire in Northern California so she could try to save her 14 horses and other animals.

Cathy Fallon says she was able to save all her horses and her barn using a water hose. But two of her dogs and nine cats died in the fire that decimated the town of Paradise.

Fallon says her house burned down and her husband was hospitalized after fears he had a heart attack. She says he will be OK.

Fallon said she and her son, Gabriel, have been sleeping in a horse stall since the blaze swept through Paradise on Thursday.

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11:40 a.m.

A fire official says homes and other buildings in the town of Paradise are still burning and that crews are working to put out those blazes.

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Cpt. Scott McLean said Saturday a deadly wildfire is still burning in parts of Paradise and the nearby community of Magalia. The blaze has destroyed more than 6,400 homes and killed at least nine people.

He says heavy smoke hampered aircraft from dropping fire-suppressing liquid Friday but that thinning smoke will allow crews to battle the blaze from the air before winds pick up Saturday night.

McLean says more than 3,000 firefighters are making progress and more personnel is on the way.

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10:30 a.m.

A fire official says there have been significant losses from a pair of Southern California wildfires but thousands of homes have been saved.

Los Angeles County fire Chief Daryl Osby said Saturday that firefighters told him they were working in the toughest, most extreme conditions they had seen in their lives on Friday night.

He says conditions are far better Saturday, with a lull in winds that are expected to return Sunday.

Osby did not say how many homes have burned. Officials have said 150 homes had burned, and the number would rise.

The fire chief urged thousands of people ordered to evacuate to stay away from Malibu and other communities outside Los Angeles.

Authorities say two people have been found dead in the fire zone.

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10:15 a.m.

Actor Martin Sheen says the Southern California wildfire that's ravaged the coastal community of Malibu is the worst he's ever seen.

The "West Wing" actor was interviewed by Los Angeles Fox affiliate KTTV Friday night on the beach after evacuating from his nearby home. He says he expects his house has been destroyed and that he's never seen a fire that has burned with such intensity.

The television station tracked down Sheen after son Charlie Sheen tweeted Friday night that he'd been unable to contact his parents. Martin Sheen gave a shoutout to his family to let them know he and his wife, Janet, were safe and planned to sleep in their car at the beach.

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10:15 a.m.

Officials say firefighters are fatigued but giving their all to get ahead of a deadly Northern California deadly blaze before winds pick up.

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection operations section chief Josh Bischof told fire crews Saturday that they did great work Friday but "we need to button this down ... (and) be ready for the wind shift tonight."

The wind-whipped blaze that started Thursday incinerated most of Paradise, a town of 27,000 people, with flames that moved so fast that there was nothing firefighters could do.

Cal Fire Capt. Scott McLean said crews gave up attacking the flames and instead helped people get out alive.

More than 3,000 firefighters are battling the blaze that has killed at least nine people.

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9:50 a.m.

Los Angeles County sheriff's Chief John Benedict says two people have been found dead in the fire zone of a Southern California blaze.

The deaths are the first from a pair of wildfires burning north and west of downtown Los Angeles that have torn through 109 square miles and destroyed more than 150 homes since Thursday.

Benedict gave no details on the deaths. He said Saturday sheriff's detectives are investigating.

Wildfires burning across California have now killed 11 people. Nine have been found dead in fires in Northern California.

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9:15 a.m.

A wildfire in Southern California has more than doubled in size, and firefighters are searching through burned-out neighborhoods looking for new destruction from a blaze that has already destroyed 150 homes.

Officials took advantage of calm conditions Saturday morning to assess damage and get a new map of a blaze that has now burned 109 square miles (282 square kilometers) in the hills and canyons north and west of downtown Los Angeles.

Searches through cities including Thousand Oaks and Malibu are certain to find more damage, and the number of burned homes is expected to surge.

A smoky haze still is hanging in blue skies in the area Saturday, with the vicious winds that drove the flames in their first two days gone and expected to stay away until Sunday.

Firefighters are scrambling to take advantage of the better conditions to start reining in the blaze.

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8:45 a.m.

Officials say better weather is helping them gain ground against a deadly blaze that leveled a town in Northern California but they're bracing for high winds that could threaten another community.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection says strong winds are expected to return Saturday night and drive the blaze south across Lake Oroville, threatening Oroville, a town of 19,000 people.

National Weather Service meteorologist Alex Hoon says the area will see sustained winds of up to 30 miles per hour (48 kilometers per hour) with gusts up to 50 mph (80 kph).

The blaze that started Thursday outside the hilly town of Paradise has grown to 156 square miles (404 square kilometers). Officials say the town has been completely destroyed.

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7:45 a.m.

Officials say a deadly blaze that leveled a Northern California town has spread overnight but crews also got some control of the flames.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said Saturday that the wildfire grew to 156 square miles (404 square kilometers) but it's 20 percent contained.

Cal Fire says the blaze that started Thursday in the hills near the town of Paradise destroyed 6,453 homes and 260 businesses. An additional 15,000 structures are threatened. At least nine people have died.

Officials say more than 3,000 firefighters are battling the blaze, which is California's most destructive wildfire since record-keeping began.

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1:30 a.m.

President Donald Trump is threatening to withhold federal payments to California, claiming its forest management is "so poor."

Trump says Saturday via Twitter that "there is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly fires in California." Trump says "billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!"

The comments were Trump's first about massive wildfires, including a blaze that incinerated most of the Northern California town of Paradise and killed at least nine people.

Wildfires also raged in Southern California, including the town of Thousand Oaks, where a gunman days earlier killed a dozen people at a local bar.

Trump earlier issued an emergency declaration providing federal funds to help firefighters.

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