'Raining hell down': 11 dead as brutal California wildfires burn on
Under a white plume of smoke and grey hazy skies, officials from Los Angeles and Ventura counties announced on Saturday that two people had died in the historically destructive Woolsey fire.
That took the toll from fires in California to 11 with many more reported missing. About 500 miles to the north, nine people were confirmed dead in and around the town of Paradise, where more than 6,700 homes and businesses burned.
In LA, officials reported that the Woolsey fire was 0% contained, but that the dry Santa Ana winds that spread the flames across 70,000 acres over the previous two days had slowed, giving firefighters a better chance of making progress on perimeter control.
“We had a tough night in relation to this firefight,” the Los Angeles county fire chief, Daryl Osby, told reporters gathered in Thousand Oaks, explaining that more homes were lost to the flames before morning. No official count was available, but he said there had been significant loss and that damage assessment teams would work throughout the day.
“From our perspective,” he said, “although we did lose a lot of homes, we saved thousands.”
Calling the fire conditions the most extreme and toughest he had seen, Osby said 900 firefighters battled the blaze through the night and that all local resources were deployed. Back-up from Arizona was on the way, he said, and they would soon ask for more help from state and federal agencies.
The Ventura county fire chief, Mark Lorenzen, echoed Osby, saying the agencies “made heroic efforts in saving lives and saving property”.
“We know Mother Nature has given us some reprieve today,” he said, “but I need everyone to remain vigilant.”
Donald Trump issued an emergency declaration to ensure federal funds were available, but he also rebuked the state. Tweeting, the president wrote: “There was no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor.” He also threatened to withhold funds, due to “gross mismanagement of the forests”.
After criticism from figures including Hollywood celebrities and California Professional Firefighters president Brian Rice, who called Trump’s remakrs “shameful” and “dangerously wrong”, the president was more conciliatory.
“Our hearts are with those fighting the fires,” he wrote, also mentioning evacuees “and the families of the 11 who have died. The destruction is catastrophic. God Bless them all.”
More than 200,000 people have had to flee their homes since Thursday. Flames from the Woolsey fire, the worse of two fires in southern California, forced evacuations from Malibu to West Hills and into parts of Thousand Oaks, still reeling from the deaths of 12 people in a shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill the day before the fire.
“It has been a brutal, hellish three days for Thousand Oaks,” city councilwoman Claudia Bill-de la Peña said, thanking surrounding communities, agencies, law enforcement and fire officials for their support.
Sgt Eric Buschow of the Ventura sheriff’s department said: “What makes this different for us is that one-two-punch. We had a horrific situation over at the Borderline Bar & Grill, and then just hours later, two big wildfires started.”
Woolsey has been more destructive than most fires in the area.
“It is changing constantly,” Buschow said, explaining that though winds had died down, dry conditions were fueling the blaze. “Hopefully they will make some progress today but the bad news is that by tomorrow that weather is supposed to be back with the big winds. My understanding is we are going to be at red flag conditions through Tuesday.”
In a hotel near the airport, families evacuated from Malibu gathered in the lobby, hoping they might be able to return home – and that their homes still stood. Walter Adrian, who left the previous evening with his girlfriend and son, said it was not the first time they had evacuated and described fast decisions made. They left their dogs with a friend, wished the best to a neighbor who decided – against orders – to stay, and packed quickly.
“You just pack whatever you can and sometimes you pack some stupid shit,” he said with a laugh, looking down at his Styrofoam cup of hotel-made tea. “But, then you quickly realize what is important and what is not.”
In northern California, around the town of Paradise, the fire began at Camp Creek Road on Thursday. Authorities are investigating whether Pacific Gas and Electric power lines may have caused the flames.
Eric Reibold, the town police chief, lost his home. “I know for a fact it’s gone,” he said on Saturday. “We are going to go through this together. I’m going to be living it right along with everyone. Nobody is left untouched.”
The fire jumped a canyon in less than two hours, Reinbold said, forcing evacuations in a community where there are few ways in and out. Citizens worked with police to direct traffic, Reinbold said. In 2008, fires also forced the evacuation of thousands.
“I think the difference is that [the 2008 fires] were more remote and didn’t impact so much so fast,” Butte county Sheriff Kory Honea said, adding: “You get the sense that it’s raining hell down upon you.”
Some residents said they were not notified of the fire and struggled to evacuate. No one notification system is perfect, Honea said, and this fire is the worst-case scenario.
“It was the event we have feared for a long time,” he said.
Firefighters were continuing to battle the 100,000 acre blaze, which was threatening 15,000 structures and was 20% contained, up from 5% on Friday. Another flank of the fire forced evacuations in Berry Creek, Mountain House and Bloomer Hill. Officials expected wind conditions to worsen on Saturday night and Sunday.
Thirty-five people had been reported missing as of Friday. The number of dead was expected to grow. In Paradise, a town mortuary, surrounded by ruins on all side, still stood.