PARADISE, Calif. — Fires whipped by strong winds were raging through thousands of acres of forests and chaparral in both Northern and Southern California on Monday, having already wiped out a town in the Sierra Nevada and forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents west of Los Angeles.
The inferno that incinerated the northern town of Paradise killed at least 29 people and is already the most destructive wildfire in California history, razing a staggering 6,453 homes. The sheriff leading the search for the missing in Paradise gave a bleak and ominous warning: “It’s very early in our effort,” Sheriff Kory L. Honea of Butte County said on Sunday evening. “We have a lot of work to do.” Officials are bracing for the death toll to rise significantly.
Here are the latest developments:
• The Camp Fire, which killed 29 people in Paradise, has already burned more than 110,000 acres and is only about 25 percent contained.
• Sheriff Honea said late Sunday that 228 people were still unaccounted for in Northern California.
• Firefighters battling the Woolsey Fire in Southern California were preparing for it to get worse over the next few days. Two people have died in that fire, which is 20 percent contained and has charred more than 90,000 acres in communities like Malibu and Thousand Oaks.
• Another blaze that has torn through 4,500 acres in Ventura County, the Hill Fire, was 75 percent contained.
• See where the fires have burned in the graphic below.
Maps: Tracking Where the Fires Are Spreading in California
Wildfires burned in California near the Sierra Nevada foothills and the Los Angeles shoreline, engulfing nearly 200,000 acres.
A hearse navigates the blackened moonscape of Paradise
Inside the evacuation zone, Paradise is a blackened moonscape.
Abandoned homes line the road, lonely horses wag their tails. White smoke lays like a thick comforter above it all.
Anthropology students watched as human remains were recovered from a home in Paradise.CreditJohn Locher/Associated Press
The fire had come from the east of Paradise, flattening some buildings but not others. Still standing was the Butte County Library. Gone was all of Old Town Plaza. On the main avenue, a tall, friendly-looking prop bear stood with a sign: Welcome to Bearadise. The buildings behind it were gone, now nothing but metal and ash.
On Wagstaff Road, the streets were a bramble of downed power lines, and the destruction was a sign of the fire’s capricious nature.
“Betsy,” read a small cardboard sign with an arrow pointing toward several homes. To the left of the Betsy arrow, fire had blasted through the home, leaving a blackened scaffold of bricks. To the right, the house sat so untouched that its yellow flowers stood tall in their pots, ready for their next watering.
Dick Waugh, 65, pulled up in a black hearse on Sunday afternoon. He wore khakis and round glasses and said he’d been helping a friend remove bodies from the neighborhoods.
Mr. Waugh rolled down his window. He had no mask to protect himself from the smoke. “Everybody here is accustomed to devastation,” he said, noting that the community had seen natural disasters before. “We ain’t never seen nothing like this.”
He wasn’t sure how this would affect him, he said. He hadn’t had time to think about it.
Anyway, he said, he had to go.
“I’ll find out next week when it comes bubbling up.”
Many were trapped in traffic as they tried to flee
In the hours after the devastating wildfire broke out around Paradise on Thursday morning, tree-lined streets in the town swiftly became tunnels of fire, blocked by fallen power lines and burning timber. Frantic residents, encircled by choking dense smoke and swirling embers, ran out of gas and ditched their cars. Fire crews struggling to reach the town used giant earthmovers to plow abandoned vehicles off the road as if they were snowdrifts after a blizzard.
Farther south near Los Angeles, where the vast Woolsey Fire continued its destruction, a mass evacuation was also all but halted at times by snarled roads. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said that two bodies had been found severely burned inside a stopped vehicle on a long, narrow driveway in Malibu.
Working to extinguish hotspots in a neighborhood damaged by the Woolsey Fire in Malibu, Calif.CreditAndrew Cullen for The New York Times
Lauri Kester, a caretaker for the elderly in Paradise, said it had taken an hour to drive three miles on Thursday as the firestorm ripped through the town.
“There were cars behind, cars in front and fire on both sides,” Ms. Kester said. A police officer running past her told her to abandon her Subaru.
So Ms. Kester, 52, ran down the road with her dog, Biscuit, in her arms. “I thought, ‘This is not how I want to die,’” Ms. Kester recalled
Why does California have so many wildfires?
The first factor is its climate.
California, like much of the West, gets most of its moisture in the fall and winter. Its vegetation then spends much of the summer slowly drying out because of a lack of rainfall and warmer temperatures. That vegetation then serves as kindling for fires.
But while California’s climate has always been fire prone, the link between climate change and bigger fires is inextricable. “Behind the scenes of all of this, you’ve got temperatures that are about two to three degrees Fahrenheit warmer now than they would’ve been without global warming,” said Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. That dries out vegetation even more, making it more likely to burn.
But there are other factors, too, including the strong Santa Ana winds and the actions of humans in sparking fires and suppressing them. Read more here.
Here’s how you can help
It’s always important to do your research before donating to charities. Here is a list of nonprofits in California that are seeking donations, as well as specific sites and organizations in Butte County and Southern California.