Searchers in California fires step up effort before rain
Volunteers in white coveralls, hard hats and masks poked through ash-covered debris of the devastating Northern California wildfire before rains that are forecast for this week complicate their efforts.
A team of 10 volunteers went from burned house to burned house in the devastated town of Paradise, scrutinising the rubble in five-minute sweeps, using sticks to move aside debris and focused on vehicles, bathtubs and what was left of mattresses.
When no remains were found, they spray-painted a large, orange “0” near the house.
Robert Panak, a volunteer on a different search-and-recovery team from Napa County, spent the morning searching homes.
Asked whether the job was tough, the 50-year-old volunteer said, “I just think about the positives, bringing relief to the families, closure.”
He said his approach was to try to picture the house before it burned and think about where people might have hidden.
About 1,000 names remain on a list of people unaccounted for more than a week after the fire began in Butte County about 140 miles north of San Francisco, authorities said.
Authorities do not believe all those on the list are missing and the roster dropped by 300 on Sunday as more people were located or got in touch to say they were not missing.
On Sunday afternoon, more than 50 people gathered at a memorial for the victims at First Christian Church in Chico, where a banner on the altar read, “We will rise from the ashes.”
People hugged and shed tears as Pastor Jesse Kearns recited a prayer for first responders: “We ask for continued strength as they are growing weary right now.”
Hundreds of search-and-recovery personnel are involved in the effort, going to homes when they receive tips that someone might have died there.
But they are also doing a more comprehensive, “door-to-door” and “car-to-car” search of areas, said Joe Moses, a commander with the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office, who is helping oversee the search-and-rescue effort.
The search area is huge, Mr Moses said, with many structures that need to be checked. The fire also burned many places to the ground, creating a landscape unique to many search-and-rescue personnel, he said.
“Here we’re looking for very small parts and pieces, and so we have to be very diligent and systematic in how we do your searches,” he said on Friday.
The remains of six more people were found over the weekend, bringing the number of dead to 77.
Among them was Lolene Rios, 56, whose son, Jed, tearfully told KXTV in Sacramento that his mother had an “endless amount of love” for him.
President Donald Trump toured the area on Saturday, joined by California’s outgoing and incoming governors, both Democrats who have traded sharp barbs with the Republican administration.
Mr Trump also visited Southern California, where firefighters were making progress on a wildfire that tore through communities west of Los Angeles from Thousand Oaks to Malibu, killing three people.
“We’ve never seen anything like this in California; we’ve never seen anything like this yet. It’s like total devastation,” Mr Trump said as he stood amid the ruins of Paradise and pledged the full support of the federal government.
Soon after the fire began, Mr Trump blamed state officials for poor forest management and threatened to cut off federal funding.
“He’s got our back,” outgoing Governor Jerry Brown said Sunday on CBS’ Face The Nation.
“There have been some back and forth between California leaders and the president,” Mr Brown said. “But in the face of tragedy, people tend to rise above some of their lesser propensities. So I think we’re on a good path.”
He also suggested California’s severe wildfires will make believers of even the most ardent climate change sceptics “in less than five years”, and that those living near forests might need to build underground shelters to protect them from fires.
Rain was forecast for midweek in the Paradise area. The National Weather Service said the area could get 20 mph sustained winds and 40 mph gusts, which could make it hard for crews to keep making progress against the blaze.
Northern California’s Camp Fire has destroyed nearly 10,000 homes and torched 233 square miles.
Sheriff Kory Honea expressed hope that Mr Trump’s visit would help with recovery, saying the tour by the Republican president and California’s Democratic leaders “signals a spirit of cooperation here that ultimately benefit this community and get us on a path towards recovery”.
Photo: An air mask hangs on an altar during a vigil for Camp Fire victims on Sunday at the First Christian Church of Chico in Chico, California. The blaze has killed at least 76 people and destroyed more than 10,000 structures according to Cal Fire. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, Pool)
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