California wildfire death toll hits 63

Sheriff says hundreds still missing in nation’s deadliest wildfire

At least 63 people are now dead from a Northern California wildfire, and officials say they have a missing persons list with 631 names on it in an ever-evolving accounting of the victims of the nation’s deadliest wildfire in a century.

The high number of missing people probably includes some who fled the blaze and don’t realize they’ve been reported missing, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said. He said he’s making the list public so people can see if they are on it and let authorities know they survived.

“The chaos that we were dealing with was extraordinary,” Honea said of the early crisis hours last week. “Now we’re trying to go back out and make sure that we’re accounting for everyone.”

Some 52,000 people have been displaced to shelters, the homes of friends and relatives, to motels — and to a Walmart parking lot and an adjacent field in Chico, a dozen miles away from the ashes.

RELATED: Northern California wildfire is deadliest in state history

At the vast shelter parking lot, evacuees from California’s deadliest fire wonder if they still have homes, if their neighbours are still alive — and where they will go when their place of refuge shuts down in a matter of days.

“It’s cold and scary,” said Lilly Batres, 13, one of the few children there, who fled with her family from the forested town of Magalia and didn’t know whether her home survived. “I feel like people are going to come into our tent.”

The Northern California fire that began a week earlier obliterated the town of Paradise . Searchers have pulled bodies from incinerated homes and cremated cars, but in many cases, the victims may have been reduced to bits of bones and ash. The latest toll: 63 dead and 9,800 homes destroyed.

At the other end of the state, more residents were being allowed back into the zone of a wildfire that torched an area the size of Denver west of Los Angeles. The fire was 62 per cent contained after destroying nearly 550 homes and other buildings. At least three deaths were reported.

Air quality across large swaths of California remains so poor due to huge plumes of smoke that schools from Sacramento to the Pacific Coast were closed on Friday, and San Francisco’s iconic open-air cable cars were pulled off the streets.

Northern California’s Camp Fire was 40 per cent contained Thursday, but there was no timeline for allowing evacuees to return because of the danger. Power lines are still down, roads closed, and firefighters are still dousing embers, authorities said.

Anna Goodnight of Paradise tried to make the best of it, sitting on an overturned shopping cart in the parking lot and eating scrambled eggs and tater tots while her husband drank a Budweiser.

But then William Goodnight began to cry.

“We’re grateful. We’re better off than some. I’ve been holding it together for her,” he said, gesturing toward his wife. “I’m just breaking down, finally.”

More than 75 tents had popped up in the space since Matthew Flanagan arrived last Friday.

“We call it Wally World,” Flanagan said, a riff off the store name. “When I first got here, there was nobody here. And now it’s just getting worse and worse and worse. There are more evacuees, more people running out of money for hotels.”

Word began to spread Thursday that efforts were being made to phase out the camp by Sunday, by gradually removing donated clothing, food and toilets.

“The ultimate goal is to get these people out of tents, out of their cars and into warm shelter, into homes,” said Jessica Busick, who was among the first volunteers when she and her husband started serving free food from their Truckaroni food truck last week. “We’ve always known this isn’t a long-term solution.”

A Sunday closure “gives us enough time to maybe figure something out,” said Mike Robertson, an evacuee who arrived there on Monday with his wife and two daughters.

It’s unclear what will be done if people don’t leave Sunday, but city officials don’t plan to kick them out, said Betsy Totten, a Chico spokeswoman. Totten said volunteers — not the city — had decided to shut down the camp.

Walmart has added security to the location and is concerned about safety there, but it is not asking people to leave, spokeswoman LeMia Jenkins said.

Some, like Batres’ family, arrived after running out of money for a hotel. Others couldn’t find a room or weren’t allowed to stay at shelters with their dogs, or in the case of Suzanne Kaksonen, her two cockatoos.

Kaksonen said it already feels like forever since she’s been there.

“I just want to go home,” she said. “I don’t even care if there’s no home. I just want to go back to my dirt, you know, and put a trailer up and clean it up and get going. Sooner the better. I don’t want to wait six months. That petrifies me.”

Some evacuees helped sort immense piles of donations that have poured in. Racks of used clothes from sweaters to plaid flannel shirts and tables covered with neatly organized pairs of boots, sneakers and shoes competed for space with shopping carts full of clothes, garbage bags stuffed with other donations and boxes of books. Stuffed animals — yellow, purple and green teddy bears and a menagerie of other fuzzy critters — sat on the pavement.

Food trucks offered free meals and a cook flipped burgers on a grill. There were portable toilets, and some people used the Walmart restrooms.

Someone walking through the camp Thursday offered free medical marijuana.

Information for contacting the Federal Emergency Management Agency for assistance was posted on a board that allowed people to write the names of those they believed were missing. Several names had the word “Here” written next to them.

RELATED: Wildfire death toll rises in California as search for missing continues

Melissa Contant, who drove from the San Francisco area to help out, advised people to register with FEMA as soon as possible, and to not reveal too much information about whether they own or rent homes or have sufficient food and water, because that could delay aid.

“You’re living in a Walmart parking lot — you’re not OK,” she told Maggie and Michael Crowder.

Kathleen Ronayne And Brian Melley, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

COVID-19 test tube. (Contributed)
test tube with the blood test is on the table next to the documents. Positive test for coronavirus covid-19. The concept of fighting a dangerous Chinese disease.
Interior Health launches online booking for COVID-19 tests

Testing is available to anyone with cold, influenza or COVID-19-like symptoms

Mainroad Communications warns of coming weather event.
Mainroad Communications notifies drivers of snowfall event over next 24 hours

It’s that time of year again. A weather event is heading to… Continue reading

Cranbrook's Casey Hanemayer reaches a rating of 1022, jumping up 17 points and becoming the highest ranked player in Canada. Paul Rodgers file.
Cranbrook’s Casey Hanemayer becomes Canada’s highest-rated disc golfer

Cranbrook’s Casey Hanemayer has become Canada’s highest ranked disc golfer, after the… Continue reading

Salvador delivers donated sand for Scout sandbag sales. Photo submitted
Support Kimberley Scouts; buy a sandbag

Salvador Ready Mix is delivering several loads of bedding sand to Resker… Continue reading

A health-care worker prepares to swab a man at a walk-in COVID-19 test clinic in Montreal North, Sunday, May 10, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes)
Interior Health records 21 new COVID-19 cases over the weekend

Thirty-six cases remain active; two people are in the hospital, one of whom is in intensive care

FILE – People wait in line at a COVID-19 testing facility in Burnaby, B.C., on Thursday, August 13, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
167 new COVID-19 cases, 1 death recorded as B.C. enters 2nd wave

Three new healthcare outbreaks also announced

Volunteer registered nurse Stephanie Hamilton recieves a swab from a driver as she works at a Covid-19 testing site in the parking lot at Everett Memorial Stadium on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020 in Everett, Washington. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
13 more COVID-19 cases in Interior Health region

There are 624 cases in the region since the start of the pandemic

This 2020 electron microscope image made available by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases shows a Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 particle isolated from a patient, in a laboratory in Fort Detrick, Md. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-NIAID/NIH via AP
At least 49 cases of COVID-19 linked to wedding in Calgary: Alberta Health

McMillan says the city of Calgary has recently seen several outbreaks linked to social gatherings

UBC geoscientists discovered the wreckage of a decades-old crash during an expedition on a mountain near Harrison Lake. (Submitted photo)
Wreckage of decades-old plane crash discovered on mountain near Harrison Lake

A team of Sts’ailes Community School students helped discover the twisted metal embedded in a glacier

The official search to locate Jordan Naterer was suspended Saturday Oct. 17. Photo courtesy of VPD.
‘I am not leaving without my son,’ says mother of missing Manning Park hiker

Family and friends continue to search for Jordan Naterer, after official efforts suspended

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Touchstones Museum has opened up Nelson’s Cold War bunker to the public. The unique exhibit includes artifacts from the 1950s and 60s. Photo: Tyler Harper
Take cover! Cold War bunker opens to public in Nelson

The shelter was built in 1964 in case of nuclear fallout

A bear similar to this black bear is believed responsible for killing a llama in Saanich on Oct. 19. (Black Press Media file photo)
Bear kills llama on Vancouver Island, prompting concerns over livestock

Officers could not track the bear they feel may not fear humans

Bernard Trest and his son Max, 10, are concerned about B.C.’s plan for students in the classroom. He was one of two fathers who filed a court application in August to prevent schools from reopening if stricter COVID-19 protections weren’t in place. That application was dismissed last week. (Contributed photo)
B.C. dad pledges to appeal quashed call for mandatory masks, distancing in schools

Bernard Trest and Gary Shuster challenged health, education ministries’ return-to-school plan

Most Read