Death toll in Northern California wildfire climbs to 48

Image: Firefighters battle a blaze at the Salvation Army Camp
Firefighters battle a blaze at the Salvation Army Camp on Nov. 10, 2018 in Malibu, California. Copyright Sandy Huffaker Getty Images
Copyright Sandy Huffaker Getty Images
By Phil Helsel and Steve Patterson and David K. Li with NBC News U.S. News
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The so-called Camp Fire that broke out in Northern California last week is the deadliest in state history.


The remains of six more victims in a deadly Northern California wildfire were found by searchers on Tuesday, bringing the death toll in the Camp Fire to 48, the sheriff said.

All six sets of remains were found in homes in the area of Paradise, a town devastated by the Camp Fire which broke out Thursday morning and is considered to be the most destructive and deadliest fire in recorded California history.

Butte County Sheriff-Coroner Kory L. Honea said that he's requested 100 National Guard troops to work in conjunction with those searching for human remains in the fire, which as of Tuesday night has burned around 130,000 acres and was 35 percent contained.

"We want to be able to cover as much ground as quickly as we possibly can," Honea said, adding that even after a search is done and people are allowed to return to the community, it's possible more remains may be found.

"I know that that's a very difficult thing to think about, but that's the difficult situation that we find ourselves in today," he said.

The Camp Fire is one of two deadly wildfires burning at opposite ends of California.

In Southern California near Los Angeles, the Woolsey Fire that broke out Thursday afternoon has killed two people near Malibu, burned more than 96,300 acres — an area around the size of the city of Denver — and destroyed an estimated at least 435 homes and other structures. A fire official said the number of destroyed structures is expected to rise significantly as assessments are done.

The Camp Fire broke out at around 6:33 a.m. on Thursday in Butte County, north of Sacramento, according to officials. An estimated 7,600 single-family homes and 260 commercial structures have been destroyed, and the town of Paradise, population around 26,000, was devastated by the blaze.

The Camp Fire is the deadliest in state history, surpassing the 1933 Griffith Park Fire that killed 29 people, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

As the fire overtook Paradise as people were evacuating Thursday, Cal Fire Division Chief David Hawks, who is also the fire chief for the town, saw one of two ambulances transporting patients from a hospital to safety catch fire, and directed everyone inside that vehicle and in another ambulance to a cul-de-sac.

With embers raining down in what Hawks likened to snowflakes in a blizzard, they sought shelter in a house and prepared to ride it out. One of the four paramedics was able to get in the home's garage through a doggie door and unlock the door, and the four patients were moved inside, he said. There were also three nurses.

"What I told everyone: 'We're going to ride the fire out here and we need to protect this home,' Hawks said Tuesday. "You know, this is our Fort Knox, basically."

Paramedics began clearing pine needles from around the home and from the gutter of the roof. If the house ended up catching fire, Hawk said they were prepared to enter the cul-de-sac which was an open area to ride out the fire.

"A couple of them were on phones with family members, talking with family members and what have you. And basically they asked me if I thought they were going to die here, or one of them did," Hawks recalled.

"And I told them, I don't believe that we are going to die here," he said. "This is a very serious situation but I think if we follow my direction, we'll ride the fire out here."


They were joined by two members of search and rescue teams, who also took shelter in the house. The road eventually cleared enough for those seeking shelter to make it back to Feather River Hospital, which although was near flames also had a large parking lot which would have been a better place to shelter until they could escape the town.

Hawks, who joined Cal Fire right out of high school in 1984, said he doesn't consider his actions exceptional.


"I was doing my job," he said. "There was a lot of lives saved by a lot of people that day — not only myself, but by a lot of people."

Three of the dead in the Camp Fire have been identified and the next of kin notified, the Butte County Sheriff's Department said. They are: Ernest Foss, 65, of Paradise; Jesus Fernandez, 48, of Concow; and Carl Wiley, 77, of Magalia.

There have also been several arrests for suspected looting in the evacuation zone, Honea said.

Two men were arrested on Monday inside a home in Butte Creek Canyon, one of whom had a handgun registered to a home under evacuation in Paradise; two men were arrested Tuesday in an area under evacuation and they allegedly had a laptop that didn't belong to them; and a man and a woman were arrested in a stolen motorhome in Chico on Tuesday, the sheriff's office said.

While the Woolsey Fire is still burning, officials said the tide is turning.

Firefighters battle a blaze at the Salvation Army Camp on Nov. 10, 2018 in Malibu, California.
Firefighters battle a blaze at the Salvation Army Camp on Nov. 10, 2018 in Malibu, California.Sandy Huffaker

"The risk has diminished significantly," Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby told reporters midday in Thousand Oaks. "When you think about this fire several days ago, it burned from Bell Canyon to the ocean which is approximately 30 miles. So our firefighters have gotten the upper hand."

Another fire burning in Southern California, the Hill Fire in Ventura County, was 90 percent contained Tuesday after burning more than 4,500 acres since it broke out on Thursday, according to Cal Fire. Two structures were destroyed and two others were damaged, the agency said.

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