The grim search for victims of California’s deadliest fire continued Wednesday as firefighters made progress in containing the Camp fire that burned the town of Paradise.
The fire has killed at least 56 people, destroyed more than 10,300 structures and scorched 138,000 acres in Butte County. It was 35% contained as of Wednesday evening, according to California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection officials.
Firefighters will continue to strengthen containment lines throughout the day and keep an eye out for hot spots in the area, Cal Fire said. Air tankers were preparing to drop retardant in the fire’s path to impede its progress, officials said.
Crews Tuesday were working to build up defenses around the town of Cherokee near the Feather River and Stirling City, northeast of Paradise and Magalia, which were both devastated by the Camp fire.
At a Paradise Town Council meeting that evening, Steve Crowder, an incoming councilman and business owner, said he helped direct traffic out of town when the fire broke out and said there were moments he didn’t know if he’d make it out alive.
Mayor Jody Jones sternly defended the town’s evacuation plan after a community member was critical.
“It wasn’t perfect,” Jones said. “But it worked. It was chaos, but it was sort of organized chaos.”
Before the meeting, city staff, residents and council members embraced, talking about what was lost in the fire. “How you holding up?” they asked one another. Every council member had lost his or her home.
Lauren Gill, the town manager, told the council she had toured the town. Her voice shook at times as she described the devastation and the massive effort that will be required to clean and rebuild it.
“People are working day and night to make this recovery happen as soon as they can,” she said. “None of us have really even had time to mourn.”
As Gill spoke, people listened with tear-streaked faces in the audience of about two dozen residents.
Authorities said they were still investigating what caused the blaze. People who lost homes have sued Pacific Gas & Electric Co., accusing the utility of negligence and blaming it for the fire. More than two dozen fire victims said the utility did not maintain its infrastructure and failed to properly inspect and manage its power transmission lines.
Amid the wreckage, search teams continued to sift through rubble and ash. The search for the dead relied on portable devices that can identify someone’s genetic material in a couple of hours, rather than days or weeks.