As California fires rage, officials start grim search for the dead in blackened ruins

Posted at 10:40 AM, Nov 11, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-11 10:52:20-05

CNN) — Powerful winds are expected to sweep through California on Sunday, exacerbating three major fires that have killed at least 23 people, destroyed thousands of homes and displaced hundreds of thousands of residents.

The blazes have ravaged the state from both ends for several days.

The Camp Fire in Northern California quickly became the third-deadliest and the most destructive fire in state history, while the Woolsey and Hill fires in the southern part of the state forced thousands of residents into shelters.

Meanwhile, crews have begun combing through blackened ruins to assess the damage and search for human remains.

Most of the bodies were recovered in or near the fire-ravaged town of Paradise, and the painstaking process of finding the missing and identifying the dead is challenging, with some of the bodies recovered burned beyond recognition.

“In some cases, the only remains we are able to recover are bones or bone fragments,” Butte County Sheriff and Coroner Kory Honea told reporters. “I know that members of the community who are missing loved ones are anxious, and I know that the news of us recovering bodies has to be disconcerting.”

The toll

Here’s the latest on the fires:

• Camp Fire: The largest of the trio, the Camp Fire has burned 105,000 acres and is 20% contained, according to Cal Fire. It’s destroyed an estimated 6,700 buildings, most of which were homes.

• Woolsey and Hill fires: Fire officials said Saturday the Woolsey Fire had spread to 83,275 acres and was 5% contained. The smaller Hill Fire covered 4,531 acres and was 65% contained. Together, they’re responsible for the destruction of 177 structures, but another 57,000 are threatened, according to fire officials.

• Massive evacuations: More than 300,000 people have been forced from their homes statewide. The majority of those residents are in Los Angeles County, where 170,000 were evacuated.

Winds expected to pick back up

Saturday saw a brief reprieve in the fierce winds fueling the fires, and officials hoped to use the break to their advantage. But wind gusts on Sunday could reach as high as 30 to 50 mph, depending on elevation, officials warned.

According to the National Weather Service, strong winds and low humidity, which could help the fire spread, are expected to linger from Sunday through Monday morning.

“We know tomorrow Mother Nature’s gonna turn her fan back on and the winds are going to start blowing,” Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen told reporters Saturday.

Woolsey Fire: Some return home after ‘firestorm’

Craig Clunies-Ross and his wife had seen wildfires before and they were prepared when it was time to evacuate their Malibu home. But what they saw when they stepped outside shocked them.

“It was a 100-foot wall of flames. It was like a firestorm, it was roaring,” he told CNN affiliate KABC, referring to the Woolsey Fire.

The family quickly took photos, a few clothes and other essentials hoping they could come back to their home. On Saturday, they were among several families who drove through scorched hills and discovered their homes were leveled.

As some of the more than 200,000 people who fled Ventura and Los Angeles counties returned home, authorities warned residents that the danger is not over.

Lorenzen, the Ventura County Fire Chief, cautioned his firefighters and the public not to be lulled by the better weather Saturday.

“Stay vigilant,” he said.

Fire officials said the Santa Ana winds that fueled the blaze had temporarily died down Saturday, giving them a brief opportunity to make progress but another round is forecast to whip the area Sunday through Tuesday.

“This is just a lull,” Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said, “so we’re going to take advantage of that and try to get as much line perimeter in as we can with the expectation that we will get more