Death toll in California wildfires climbs to 25

Image Credit: CAL FIRE / MGN
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LOS ANGELES, Calif. (NBC) -- The remains of 14 more victims were found in the ashes of the devastating Northern California wildfire, bringing the total number of deaths from blazes raging across the state to at least 25, officials said Saturday.

Butte County Sheriff Kory L. Honea said the 14 bodies were recovered in the Camp Fire, thought to be the most destructive wildfire in state history. Nine deaths had previously been reported.

Two bodies were also found in the burn zone of the Woolsey Fire in Southern California.

"I know that members of our community who are missing loved ones are anxious, and I know that the news of us recovering bodies has to be disconcerting," Honea said. "We are doing everything that we possibly can to identify those remains and make contact with the next of kin."

"My heart goes out to those people. I will tell you that this weighs heavy on all of us," he said.

More than 50,000 people have been evacuated or were in shelters due to the Camp Fire, which broke out Thursday around 6:33 a.m., and a preliminary estimate is that more than 6,400 homes have been destroyed, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, also known as Cal Fire.

The Camp Fire has burned around 105,000 acres and was 20 percent contained Saturday, officials said. More Santa Ana winds fueling the fires are expected on Sunday.

Honea said that of the 14 new deaths reported, four were in the Concow area, east of Paradise, and 10 were in the Paradise area. He said the sheriff’s office has 110 pending reports of unaccounted-for people, but cautioned that some of those calls may be duplicates.

Some 250,000 people in California were under evacuation orders from three fires on Saturday, including the Camp Fire, officials said.

Two of those fires were burning in the Los Angeles area: The Woolsey Fire in Ventura and Los Angeles counties, which accounted for 200,000 of the evacuation orders, and the Hill Fire in Ventura County.

Fire crews took advantage Saturday of a break in fierce winds — with resources being sent from other states to help — but officials warned they are expected to return Sunday. The National Weather Service warned of "extremely critical fire weather conditions" Sunday through Tuesday.

"Don't be lulled by a false sense of security — right now Mother Nature has given us a short reprieve. The winds are not blowing,” Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said Saturday afternoon in a media briefing about the Woolsey Fire.

"But we know tomorrow, Mother Nature’s going to turn her fan back on, and the winds are going to start blowing," he said, urging the public to stay vigilant and to be prepared to evacuate if called to do so.

The two people found dead in the Malibu area amid the Woolsey Fire were discovered badly burned in a vehicle in a driveway, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said. Sheriff’s Capt. Chief John Benedict said those deaths are being treated as fire-related but an investigation is ongoing.

Marilyn Pelletier got a knock on her door in Paradise as the Camp Fire raged and was told she had five minutes to leave. She grabbed her medicine bag and her small dog, and when she left "the whole sky was pink."

"You could see the fire coming," she said. "It was devastating. It's horrible. The worst thing I've ever experienced in my life. I was just — I'm grateful I got out with my life."

Pelletier moved to Paradise two years ago after her husband passed away, and bought a house in the town which was destroyed in the fire, she said.

"It’s a beautiful home — it was. It was real pretty,” Pelletier said. "I'm devastated. I'm heartbroken, I'm alone, I’m scared."

At least 50 homes in Ventura County have been destroyed or damaged in the Woolsey Fire, said Ventura County sheriff's Sgt. Eric Buschow.

Michelle Mussetter, who evacuated Friday night from her home in Thousand Oaks, returned Saturday to find it was destroyed.

"I just came around the corner and I’m like 'Is that house burned?' You could see through it," she said. "My babies grew up in this house. I don’t know what to say."

President Donald Trump, on a trip to France, tweeted Saturday morning about what he called poor "forest management" and suggested that was to blame for the deadly and destructive wildfires in California. Fire officials have said that the fires have been fueled by high winds.

The Pasadena Firefighters Association strongly objected to the president’s remarks, tweeting: “Mr. President, with all due respect, you are wrong. The fires in So. Cal are urban interface fires and have NOTHING to do with forest management."

"Come to SoCal and learn the facts & help the victims," the tweet, attributed to Scott Austin, the president of the International Association of Fire Fighters 809, read.

Trump in August made similar claims about California's water and environmental management in relation to fires, claims which were rejected by experts.

California Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, also tweeted that lives have been lost and homes burned to the ground, and it was not the time for the president to be engaging in partisanship. Later Saturday, Trump did tweet condolences to the families of those who died.

The Hill Fire, burning in Ventura County, was at more than 4,000 acres on Saturday, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, also known as Cal Fire. Some 400 structures were threatened, and the fire was 25 percent contained.

Fire officials and climate scientists have said that climate change is contributing to worsening wildfire conditions in California, raising fears that the state’s fire season may now be year-round.

"It's really a cumulative effect in that it's changing the landscape. You're getting longer periods of the year when you get these fires. We're literally burning the candle at both ends,” Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told NBC News on Friday.

California's typical fire season isn't in the summer, but rather in September and early October, which follow the dry season and come before the rainier one — a product of the area's Mediterranean climate.

California in July saw its hottest month ever recorded with a string of record-breaking heat waves, and Swain said vegetation in the state has been left "tinder, tinder dry."

Initial estimates are that the Camp Fire has destroyed more than 6,453 single-family homes and 260 commercial buildings, which would make it the most destructive wildfire in state history, according to Cal Fire.

The Tubbs Fire that struck in Napa and Sonoma counties in October 2017 had topped the list with 5,636 structures destroyed, according to Cal Fire. Twenty-two people lost their lives.

Malibu was among the cities ordered to evacuate because of the Woolsey Fire. Shane Clark, 28, who has lived in the community since he was 12 years old, left Friday and watched on TV as his neighbors' homes burned and as firefighters tried to save his home.

Firefighters were able to enter his house and recover what they could that might be of sentimental value. They left the items outside, he said. Among them were four ultrasound photos that had been hanging on the fridge of his and his wife’s unborn son, which will be their first child.

"They were able to save these pictures for us,” Clark said. "This is the only copies that we have."

"I'm very thankful for what they could do," Clark said outside the ruins of their home, which they have lived in for a year.

"You know, we can rebuild," he said. "But the value of some of those things that they were able to take out was I think more valuable than this structure."