Relentless California wildfires leave 79 dead, nearly 1,300 others still missing


The number of people who remain missing in the wake of a pair of ferocious wildfires that have been blazing across both ends of California for more than a week spiked to nearly 1,300 late Saturday.

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The two monstrous blazes, which both ignited last week, have claimed a total of 79 lives while laying waste to a total area of nearly 400 square miles, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Officials said that 63 of the remains have been positively identified so far.

The vast majority of the deaths — 76 total — were due to the Camp Fire in Northern California’s Butte County, making it the deadliest and most destructive wildland fire in the state’s history.

The number of people missing or unaccounted for in Butte County grew to 1,011 by Friday, and 1,276 by late Saturday, though those figures may continue to fluctuate as authorities track down the names on the list, according to Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea.

President Donald Trump arrived in California on Sunday to survey the devastation and meet with firefighters, alongside California Gov. Jerry Brown and the state’s governor-elect, Gavin Newsom.

Soel Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
President Donald Trump greets California Governor Jerry Brown and Governor-elect Gavin Newsom, left, as he arrives at Beale Air Force Base in California, Nov. 17, 2018.

The president stopped first in Paradise, where he called the damage “total devastation.”

“We’ve never seen anything like this in California,” Trump said.

The president later visited Malibu to tour devastation from the Woolsey Fire.

Camp Fire
SLIDESHOW: Massive wildfires engulf California

Meanwhile, the smoke from the flames has descended across the Golden State and choked the air in major cities, including San Francisco. Officials have advised residents in the affected areas to remain indoors and wear a protective mask outside.

The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for California through Sunday as humidity drops and wind gusts could get up to 40 mph in the Camp Fire zone.

PHOTO: Residences leveled by the wildfire line a neighborhood in Paradise, Calif., Nov. 15, 2018.Noah Berger/AP
Residences leveled by the wildfire line a neighborhood in Paradise, Calif., Nov. 15, 2018.

The Camp Fire in Northern California

The Camp Fire ignited Nov. 8 near Pulga, a tiny community in Butte County nestled in the Plumas National Forest. The blaze exploded as strong winds fanned the flames southwest, enveloping the town of Paradise, a bucolic community of 27,000 people in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

The fire has virtually decimated the entire town.

Melissa Schuster, a Paradise town council member, said her house was among those leveled by the Camp Fire.

“Our entire five-member council is homeless,” Schuster said in a Nov. 13 interview on ABC News’ “Start Here” podcast. “All of our houses have been destroyed.”

PHOTO: Homes leveled by the Camp Fire line a development on Edgewood Lane in Paradise, Calif., Nov. 12, 2018.Noah Berger/AP
Homes leveled by the Camp Fire line a development on Edgewood Lane in Paradise, Calif., Nov. 12, 2018.

The death toll from the Camp Fire increased to 76 on Saturday, after officials found still more bodies in the burned-out rubble of homes and melted cars, according to the Butte County sheriff, who has warned that the remains of some of the missing may never be recovered due to the severity of the fire.

The Camp Fire had burned more than 149,000 acres as of Saturday evening, and destroyed nearly 13,000 structures, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Thom Porter, chief of strategic planning for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the body count is expected to climb higher as search crews continue sifting through the destruction.

“It is by far the most deadly single fire in California history and it’s going to get worse, unfortunately,” Porter said of the Camp Fire.

Many of the deaths have taken place in Paradise.

“The entire community of Paradise is a toxic wasteland right now,” Schuster said, holding back tears. “In addition to that, and this is the hardest part for me to even talk about, the number of fatalities is [among] things that we don’t know at this moment and that’s something that has to be determined before people can move back in.”

PHOTO: Members of the Sacramento County Coroners office look for human remains in the rubble of a house burned at the Camp Fire, Nov. 12, 2018, in Paradise, Calif.John Locher/AP
Members of the Sacramento County Coroner’s office look for human remains in the rubble of a house burned at the Camp Fire, Nov. 12, 2018, in Paradise, Calif.

The Camp Fire, which has scorched a total of 149,000 acres in Butte County, was 55 percent contained Saturday evening as thousands of exhausted firefighters work around the clock to quell the inferno, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Two prison inmate firefighters were among a total of three firefighters who have been injured while battling the Camp Fire, officials told ABC News.

Earlier this week, Gov. Brown toured the devastation caused by the Camp Fire along with Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), as well as U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

“This is one of the worst disasters I’ve ever seen in my career, hands down,” Long told reporters at the scene Wednesday.

PHOTO: A search and rescue team combs through the debris for possible human remains at Paradise Gardens, Nov. 16, 2018 in Paradise, Calif.Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/Polaris
A search and rescue team combs through the debris for possible human remains at Paradise Gardens, Nov. 16, 2018 in Paradise, Calif.

The Woolsey Fire in Southern California

The Woolsey Fire also ignited Nov. 8 near the city of Simi Valley in Ventura County and rapidly spread south to Los Angeles County. The wind-driven flames jumped the 101 Freeway before sweeping through the celebrity enclaves of Malibu and Calabasas.

The entire city of Malibu and a sprawling naval base near the seaside city of Oxnard were among the areas under mandatory evacuation orders, as officials warned the blaze could potentially spread all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

PHOTO: A home is engulfed in flames during the Woolsey Fire in Malibu, Calif., Nov. 9, 2018. Gene Blevins/Reuters
A home is engulfed in flames during the Woolsey Fire in Malibu, Calif., Nov. 9, 2018.

Evacuation orders have since been lifted for some areas, including parts of Malibu, as firefighters successfully stretch containment levels.

The Woolsey Fire, which has torched a total of 96,949 acres in Ventura and Los Angeles counties, was up to 88 percent containment by Saturday morning, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, also known as Cal Fire.

In all, 1,130 structures have been destroyed and another 300 have been damaged, as of Sunday morning.

PHOTO: Firefighters knock down flames in the Point Dume neighborhood of Malibu, Calif., on Nov. 10, 2018, after the Woolsey Fire tore through the neighborhood overnight.Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
Firefighters knock down flames in the Point Dume neighborhood of Malibu, Calif., on Nov. 10, 2018, after the Woolsey Fire tore through the neighborhood overnight.

The blaze burned down a portion of Paramount Ranch in Agoura Hills known as “Western Town,” where hundreds of movies and television shows, including HBO’s “Westworld,” have been filmed, dating back to the 1920s.

The Woolsey Fire has been blamed for the deaths of at least three people, and three firefighters sustained injuries while battling the flames, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

PHOTO: The Santa Monica Mountains are seen left blackened by the Woolsey Fire near Malibu, Calif., Nov. 14, 2018.David Mcnew/AFP/Getty Images
The Santa Monica Mountains are seen left blackened by the Woolsey Fire near Malibu, Calif., Nov. 14, 2018.

A public health emergency

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has declared a public health emergency in California, where the wildfires have forced the evacuation of at least two hospitals and eight other health facilities.

“We are working closely with state health authorities and monitoring the needs of healthcare facilities to provide whatever they may need to save lives and protect health,” Azar said in a statement Wednesday. “This declaration will help ensure that Americans who are threatened by these dangerous wildfires and who rely on Medicare, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program have continuous access to the care they need.”

Smoke advisories have been issued for the affected region amid concerns that smoke from the fires could present a “significant health threat” for people with asthma and other lung conditions, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Residents have been urged to stay indoors as much as possible and to wear a properly fitting mask when venturing outside.

PHOTO: Smoke from the Camp Fire spreading over Northern California towards the Pacific Ocean, Nov. 16, 2018.NASA Worldview/EPA via Shutterstock
Smoke from the Camp Fire spreading over Northern California towards the Pacific Ocean, Nov. 16, 2018.

Berkeley Earth, a California-based nonprofit that analyzes air quality in real-time, ranked San Francisco, Stockton and Sacramento as the world’s three “most polluted cities” on Friday morning.

National Weather Service meteorologist Aviva Braun told reporters that light winds have contributed to the poor air quality but, on Saturday, stronger northeast winds mixing in the valley should help improve conditions.

Meanwhile, there has been an outbreak of norovirus at a shelter in Butte County housing evacuees, according to Lisa Almaguer, public information officer for Butte County Public Health.

People who are ill at the shelter have been taken to a separate location, are using separate restroom facilities and are being cared for by public health experts, according to Almaguer, who said the presence of the contagious virus is “not uncommon,” especially at this time of year and “with hundreds of people living in close quarters.”

ABC News’ Karine Hafuta, Marilyn Heck and Bonnie McLean contributed to this report



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