Volunteers help victims of Camp Fire, even when losing their own homes
The death toll from the Camp Fire reached 42 Monday, making the Northern California blaze the deadliest fire in state history.
The number of fatalities far outstrips the 1933 Griffith Park Fire that killed 29 people in Los Angeles. With hundreds still reported missing in Butte County, the total is expected to grow.
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said 13 more victims were found Monday, 10 in the Paradise area and three in Concow. Honea said eight of the victims were found inside homes, the others outside.
Four of the victims have been identified, and relatives of three had been notified as of Monday, Honea said. The three whose names were released were Jesus “Zeus” Fernandez, 48, of Concow; Carl Wiley, 77, of Magalia; and Ernest Foss, 65, of Paradise.
Fernandez had a beloved German Shepard named King, said Myrna Pascua, a friend who had been active on social media for days searching for him. She said Fernandez’s son was notified Monday night that he was found pinned between two cars.
“We kind of had a bad feeling about it and I can’t even think right now,” Pascua said. “It’s a sad situation but at least we have an answer, because it was very difficult not having an answer all these days.”
The Camp Fire has devastated the town of Paradise and has destroyed at least 7,177 structures, most of them homes, making it the most destructive blaze in state history measured by the number of structures destroyed.
President Trump, who on Saturday criticized California officials for “gross mismanagement” of forests, tweeted late Monday that he had approved emergency federal aid for the state.
“I just approved an expedited request for a Major Disaster Declaration for the State of California,” the president tweeted. “Wanted to respond quickly in order to alleviate some of the incredible suffering going on. I am with you all the way. God Bless all of the victims and families affected.”
Search teams were looking for more remains throughout the burned out area of Paradise Monday, which once had a population of about 27,000 residents, and in surrounding hill towns. The bodies of many victims have been reduced to little more than ash, requiring authorities to bring in special forensics teams to collect remains, and necessitating DNA testing to identify the dead.
At the scene of the destroyed Skyway Villa Mobile Home and RV park Monday, a dozen searchers were sifting through the ashes, including Noelle Francis of Butte County Search and Rescue, who was accompanied by a Labrador Retriever named “Spinner.”
“She’s a good kid,” Francis said of the dog, who was blissfully unaware of the deadly serious task she was undertaking.
Families desperate for clues about the well-being of loved ones have taken to social media since Thursday looking for information.
Steve Mixon was asking for help through Twitter to find his wife’s aunt’s elderly parents, Dorothy and Lou Herrera. Mixon fears they died in their home on Clearview Drive.
He said the family had visited every official shelter in the area “with no results.” They got a Butte County deputy to go to the address and take a photograph of the home. It showed the couple’s 2003 gold Cadillac CTS burned inside the garage, which had collapsed on top of it, he said.
The couple doesn’t drive, and Dorothy Herrera has dementia, he said, leading him to fear that they both perished. But he doesn’t know.
“It’s just a matter of at this point being in limbo, of are they dead in the house or are they gone,” Mixon said. “We’re really leaning towards they didn’t make it out, but who knows.”
Christina Taft hasn’t seen her 67-year old mother, Victoria Taft, since about 10 a.m. Thursday when she left her mom’s house. “She couldn’t drive,” Taft said. “I wish I hadn’t left her.”
Taft said her mother, who has mobility issues, refused to leave, and that she and her neighbors had not received any reverse 911 calls for mandatory evacuations.
“They didn’t do sirens, they didn’t knock on doors,” Taft said, adding that when she got out of fire and contacted a law enforcement officer, they told her they weren’t evacuating or rescuing anyone who couldn’t get out of Paradise.
“They didn’t warn people, they didn’t help people out,” she said. “They relied on the tiny police force. It was like survival of the fittest.”
Kiatta Isaacson, who lives in Georgia, and her family haven’t heard from her stepfather, Robert Sutliff, 51, since Wednesday and hasn’t received much information from the Butte County Sheriff’s Office after filing a missing person’s report.
“We were told to call detectives and we left a message, but have not heard back,” she said.
Roman Digby last spoke to his father, John Arthur Digby, 78, on Thursday morning. John had been sick for a few days and his son was trying to persuade him to go to the doctor, but he wouldn’t go, Digby said.
He tried to call his father again later that day and became concerned when the call wouldn’t go through, then tried calling the main office of the mobile home park where his father lived and the Paradise Police Department. Digby got the same result.
“I Googled Paradise, Calif., and saw an article about the fire, and that’s when I realized there was a bigger danger than my dad being sick,” Digby said.
Digby learned Monday that his father’s mobile home was destroyed in the blaze, leaving little more than a pile of ash and melted plastic.
“I want them to go there and to search for human remains but they haven’t gotten to it, I guess,” he said. “I just want something, even if it’s bad news.”
No people were allowed back into the ruins of the town Monday, though Paradise was busy with activity as PG&E crews swarmed the area checking gas lines and dealing with massive numbers of downed power lines and scorched power poles hanging precariously over roadsides.
Workers with the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development walked through the rubble of destroyed medical facilities hanging red signs on a few remaining walls, condemning the buildings.
The hospital – whose ancillary buildings were burned Thursday – was surrounded by newly-installed fence with security guards patrolling the grounds.
Law enforcement officers from agencies around the state patrolled the town for looters, but concern still remained about thieves.
Honea said his office had received 139 reports of suspicious activity, including 16 reports of looting, but he said that as of Monday no arrests had been made.
In a neighborhood off the Skyway in Paradise, Keith Mapes propped up hand-painted warnings around the block that read “Looters beware,” “I see you,” and “Looters will be shot.”
Mapes, who has firefighting experience, sent his wife and kids away Thursday as the flames approached. He stayed behind to protect his home and a handful of others, using hoses and hand tools to scratch out fire barriers in the leaves. His house is still standing, but Mapes said the remains of some of his neighbors are in the charred wreckage of a nearby home.
Alone and without power, he said he’s “just sort of trying to safeguard this little bit of real estate that is left.”
He had a semiautomatic handgun tucked into the waistband of his pants. Asked if he carries it all the time, he said, “Bet your ass.”
Michael McGough contributed.