The death toll from the most destructive fire in California history surged to 23 people on Saturday night, with more than 100 still missing in Butte County, officials said.
The 14 more bodies were discovered Saturday, and fire crews are still searching through the burn area for more victims.
More than 6,700 homes and commercial buildings have been lost in Butte County, making it the most destructive fire to property in state history. Huge swaths of the town of Paradise were lost.
On Saturday, officials said the fire was still threatening Stirling City and Paradise Pines and headed toward Oroville. Defenses placed outside the city of Chico appear to be holding.
Firefighters are concerned that strong northeasterly winds will return Saturday night, causing the fire to spread.
“Extreme fire behavior with dangerous rates of spread are expected,” Cal Fire said in a statement.
As of Saturday morning, the fire had burned 100,000 acres and was 20% contained. About 15,000 structures were still threatened.
Homes and businesses had been reduced to piles of ash and twisted metal. Tall pine trees and utility poles smoldered. According to the California Teachers Assn., at least five of the nine schools in Paradise were destroyed, including Paradise Elementary.
Cars abandoned by fleeing motorists who found themselves unable to escape lay crumpled in the roadways, their tires melted.
The bodies of five people were discovered on Edgewood Lane in vehicles overtaken by the fire. Others were found outside their cars and homes. Butte County Sheriff Kory L. Honea said they could not immediately be identified because they were burned so badly.
“There were people who weren’t able to get out,” Honea said from a makeshift command post at Butte College, which had been closed Thursday. As he talked, flakes of white ash fell on his uniform as strong winds continued to sweep across the nearby burning ridges.
Authorities are recovering bodies “with as much dignity as we can afford them,” he said.
Sue Brown said she and her husband, Sidney, had a half-hour’s warning before they were forced to leave their home and most of their possessions behind. Before they knew the fire was coming, Sidney had taken off his wedding ring because his fingers were swollen.
“And it’s gone,” said Sue Brown, 66.
The couple is now volunteering at the Elks Lodge in Chico, one of many evacuation centers in the area, which helps keep their minds busy.
Three years ago, the Browns moved into a three-bedroom one-story home in Paradise where they planned to spend their retirement.
Sue Brown said she didn’t expect the gravity of what’s happened to sink in until they were able to return to their property. She doesn’t expect to rebuild there.
“We not only lost our home,” she said Saturday. “We lost a whole community. It’s gone. Paradise is gone.”
At Neighborhood Church in Chico, a large evacuation center, dozens lined up outside at tents set up by insurance companies, while inside the Red Cross was registering people. Just inside, a white dry-erase board had rows of names of the missing. The board was filled, so sheets of yellow notebook paper with more names were taped to the sides.
For the past two nights, Gerald Zastrow, 82, his wife, Nancy, 70, and her sister Terri Myers, 80, slept in small cots in the shelter. They had abandoned their home on the south side of Paradise on Thursday and were able to collect a handful of possessions beforehand.
“If I got off the hill the way God made me, I was lucky,” Nancy Zastrow said. “If I got anything more than that, which I did, I was really lucky.”
The three have an offer to stay with relatives near San Francisco, but want to wait and see if their home is still standing first. Nancy Zastrow found evidence online that the health center down the road from their home had not burned, but their neighbor’s house had.
“The majority of the people need to know if they have a home or not,” she said. “It’s the not knowing that’s the killer. This limbo is really difficult.”
Joe McNally and his wife, Anne Benoit, were struggling to come to terms with losses of everything they owned on 20 acres of Paradise: two houses, a barn, a garage, a stable and a Christmas tree farm.
“We lost 10,000 Christmas trees that were 2 to 10 years old,” Benoit said. “We tried to defend them with garden hoses, but it wasn’t enough.”
“Here’s the thing: It takes about 10 years to grow a Christmas tree,” she added. “But I’m 70, and Joe is 71. So, with the crop gone, we won’t grow another.”
Among the displaced was Anthony Campa, a 40-year resident of what he described as “a mountain town like no other.”
“The family lines of some people I grew up with stretch back to the Gold Rush era in the 1860s,” he said. “Later, in 1979, we incorporated as a city of distinction, but not for the usual reasons.”
“We are the only municipality in the United States without a sewer system,” the former Paradise firefighter said. “Instead, we rely on septic systems. That’s because the hilly terrain, isolation and remoteness of Paradise made a sewer system unaffordable.”
As caravans of fire engines and utility trucks rushed past the window of a restaurant in nearby Chico where he was trying to come to terms with the catastrophe, he said, “The big question now among evacuees is this: So, where do we go from here?
“Paradise was an exceptional place to live for generations,” he said wistfully. “It may be again, but not for generations to come.”
It could be weeks before officials determine the cause of the Camp fire, named because it began near Camp Creek Road. On Friday, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. notified state regulators that one of its high-voltage power lines located near where the fire began had malfunctioned shortly before the first flames were reported Thursday morning.
The fire forced 50,000 people in Paradise and surrounding towns to evacuate. Many of them spilled onto a four-lane road called Skyway — the main evacuation route out of Paradise — that quickly became jammed. Residents described sitting in traffic as flames on both sides of the road reached their cars.