By Elijah Nouvelage
CHICO, Calif. (Reuters) – Hundreds of volunteers will spend Thanksgiving combing through ruins in heavy rain for the remains of victims killed in the deadliest wildfire in California history, with strong winds and the risk of mudslides an additional complication.
The blaze killed 83 people and 563 people remain unaccounted for in and around Paradise, a community of nearly 27,000 people that was largely incinerated by the so-called Camp Fire two weeks ago, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said.
Searchers moving through affected areas around Paradise, 175 miles (280 km) northeast of San Francisco, are expected to face heavy rains that may hinder their efforts. Between 4-6 inches (102-152 mm) of rain was due to fall at the weekend, forecasters said.
The weather will not deter some 830 people who have signed up to spend Thanksgiving combing through ash and rubble for human remains, Honea told a news briefing on Wednesday.
Warehouses were opened in Chico to provide evacuees protection from the cold and rain as celebrity chef Jose Andres prepared to cook hundreds of Thanksgiving meals for evacuees.
RIVERS OF MUD
The rains, which in some areas were likely to be accompanied by winds of up to 45 miles per hour (72 kph), raised risks of ravines turning into rivers of mud. The fire has burned across 153,336 acres (62,000 hectares) of the Sierra foothills and is 85 percent contained.
“There’s no vegetation to hold the earth and there’s a risk it could just start moving, with mud carrying everything in its path,” National Weather Service forecaster Johnnie Powell said in Sacramento.
The death toll has been gradually rising, with two more names added to the list on Wednesday to bring the total to 83 people, with 58 of them tentatively identified, Honea said.
The number of people unaccounted for, which has fluctuated widely over the past week, declined by 307 to 563 on Wednesday.
Asked about the effects of rain on the search for remains, Honea said it would make going through debris more difficult but he was less concerned about remains washing away than the headaches posed by mud.
Still, he said some remains might never be found.
“What we’re looking for in many respects are very small bone fragments so, as we go forward, it’s certainly possible that not all of them will be located,” Honea said.
The Camp Fire incinerated 13,503 homes in and around Paradise. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.
The state is undertaking the largest single wildfire cleanup operation in its history to remove toxic and radioactive ash and debris at burned home sites, said Eric Lamoureux from the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.
Butte County says evidence from recent fires in California showed that some destroyed homes and property contained “high and concerning levels of heavy metals, lead, mercury, dioxin, arsenic and other carcinogens. Some property may have the presence of radioactive materials.”
(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, Editing by William Maclean)