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California's Camp fire 98% contained with an assist from rain; flash flood watch still in effect

California's Camp fire 98% contained with an assist from rain; flash flood watch still in effect
Teams work in the rain Friday as they look for human remains in the ash and debris of a Paradise home. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Firefighters are closing in on full containment of California’s deadliest fire on record, killing at least 85 people and scorching more than 153,000 acres in Butte County, officials said Saturday.

The Camp fire, which has destroyed nearly 14,000 homes, is 98% contained, according to California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection officials. The number of residents still missing dropped to 475 on Friday; thousands more have been displaced by the massive blaze.

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Rains in the area have assisted firefighters in extinguishing hot spots, but most evacuations and road closures remain in effect. About 1,200 firefighters — assisted by dozers and helicopters — continue to battle the blaze.

Many crews, however, are being allowed to go home as firefighters close in on full containment, said Brigitte Foster, fire prevention officer for Lassen National Forest.

“Our camp is definitely half the size that it’s been,” she said. On Thanksgiving Day “we were sending a lot of resources home, so that makes it nice, to be home with their families.”

As rains douse fire-scarred areas, authorities expect the removal of ash and other toxic debris from the fire will be the largest such effort ever undertaken by state officials.

The National Weather Service said a flash flood watch is in effect for burn areas through Friday. Periods of heavy rainfall over recently burned areas could produce ash and debris flows.

“The concerns have been the high winds and trees blowing and the possibility of some mudslides,” Foster said. “But there hasn’t been a constant downpour where it’s going to cause flooding or mudslides as of right now.”

The amount of debris is expected to dwarf the cleanup effort undertaken from last year's Northern California fires. That effort led to more than 2 million tons of toxic debris removed from 6,000 properties in seven California counties: Sonoma, Napa, Lake, Mendocino, Butte, Yuba and Nevada, said Eric Lamoureux of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

County, state and federal governments jump start the process of removal of toxic ash and other debris, and can do so at no cost to the owner, Lamoureux said. Typically, about 80% of owners give the government permission to conduct the cleanup operations, with the rest opting to do it themselves.

In addition to rain, heavy winds are expected throughout the northern part of the state, according to Cal Fire. Gusts of 35 to 45 mph could whip over higher terrain and east of the Cascade-Sierra crest Friday, with widespread gusts 35 to 50 mph and stronger at higher elevations and wind-prone locations.

Some showers are also possible in the north and west Tuesday, as well as another round of heavier rain beginning Wednesday.

A weak ridge of high pressure will build into Southern California from the Pacific Ocean Saturday through early next week. Local northeast winds of 10 to 20 mph with gusts to 35 mph will reach the mountains, as well as canyons and passes, Saturday night through Monday night.

In Malibu, some residents who evacuated from the Woolsey fire were still waiting to return home as officials worked to restore utilities and road access. That fire, which charred about 97,000acres and destroyed more than 1,600 structures, is 100% contained. Three people were killed.

“There is still a lot of work to be done,” said Los Angeles County Fire Department spokesman Pono Barnes. “Strike teams are in the area helping residents repopulate.”

Firefighters’ biggest job Friday was working with Southern California Edison and SoCal Gas, Barnes said.

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“There was quite a bit of infrastructure damaged during the burn,” he said. “Edison is working to replace downed power lines and burned-out power poles.”

As many as 2,000 power poles have been replaced, he said.

“That is why we still have some evacuations in place,” Barnes added.

Like Northern California, officials in Malibu and the surrounding areas have been able to pare down their operations and cut back on firefighting teams. The rains that hit Malibu this week were minimal and did not cause any significant damage, Barnes said.

Authorities have opened two disaster assistance centers in Malibu and Agoura Hills. The centers will stay open through Dec. 8, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

Disaster assistance centers provide information on disaster recovery, including how to replace records lost during the wildfire and how to file insurance claims. The Agoura Hills center is in the Conrad L. Hilton Foundation, and the Malibu center is in the Malibu courthouse.

The series of major wildfires that scorched California this month — the Hill fire, Woolsey fire and Camp fire — have burned more than 254,816 acres and destroyed an estimated 20,391 structures.

Staff writer Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.

10:40 p.m.: Saturday, Nov. 24: This article includes new containment and fatality figures from Cal Fire.

10:45 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 24: This article was updated with new information from Cal Fire.

This article was originally posted at 5:35 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 23.

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