The death toll from the Camp fire raging in Butte County rose to 29 on Sunday as authorities continued their search for victims amid the ruins of the Sierra foothills town of Paradise.
Five additional victims were found in their homes, said Butte County Sheriff-Coroner Kory Honea. Another was found in a vehicle.
The number could continue to grow. On Sunday, authorities said, there were 228 people whose whereabouts were unknown.
The search has been hampered by the active fire still burning in the area. Through much of the weekend, the ground remained too hot for cadaver dogs to tread.
Authorities have struggled to keep up with the sheer number of calls about missing people, Honea said Sunday. The Sheriff’s Department has fielded some 500 calls and found more than 100 people, many of whom were in shelters but had not yet been in touch with loved ones, he said. Over the coming days, he said, deputies will be working to sort through the confusion.
“What I will say is we are very early in our efforts,” Honea said. “There is still a great deal of work to do.”
The missing include at least three neighbors of Shane Bender, who stood Sunday outside his single-story, wood-sided home in Paradise. Splotches of charred pine needles covered his yard like leopard spots, but his property was otherwise unscathed. His was one of the few holdouts from a blaze that authorities say has claimed 6,435 homes and 260 commercial structures — the biggest property loss in any fire in recent California history.
“I’m having a hard time grasping what happened here,” said Bender, 31. “I moved a year ago. I was just getting to know my neighbors. All good people.”
Bender said deputies had made visits to the residences of several neighbors listed as missing.
“They park, check the address and then start walking slowly, eyeballing the broken glass and Sheetrock for telltale signs,” he said.
As the fire bore down Thursday, Bender, a wildlands firefighter with the local Feather River Hotshots crew, shepherded terrified neighbors to safety as the air filled with acrid smoke and glowing embers rained down on their rooftops.
Within minutes, dozens of men, women and children — some of them screaming and crying — were streaming down a two-lane street toward the safety of a hardware store parking lot that he assured them was there beyond the smoke.
By Sunday evening, the Camp fire — named because it began near Camp Creek Road in Butte County — had charred 111,000 acres and was 25% contained, fire authorities said.
Alex Hoon, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said at an evening news conference that the powerful winds that have plagued the fire fight are expected to die down after Monday. A red flag warning for wind gusts up to 40 mph was set to remain in effect until 7 a.m. Monday, he said.
Jonathan Pangburn, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said it had been 210 days since the area had received at least a half-inch of rain and that there was “critically dry fuel available for burning.”
“The wind conditions coupled with that fuel means they are primed and ready for spot fires to catch,” he said.
On Sunday, what was left of Paradise was all but deserted. Surreal new post-fire routines replaced the rhythms of life.
Fire engines rumbled along narrow mountain lanes en route to smoldering hotspots. Utility crews used mobile cherry pickers to cut down sagging power lines. Authorities walked carefully amid the husks of burned homes as they searched for remains.
The cause of the fire has not yet been determined. On Friday, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. notified state regulators that a high-voltage power line near where the fire began had malfunctioned shortly before the first flames were first reported.
Scott Branch, who works for PG&E, spent Sunday beginning the long and arduous task of cutting down and removing hundreds of miles of power cables, which drooped from poles that were either aflame or leaning perilously.
About 1 p.m., his work on a severely damaged stretch of Edgewood Lane was interrupted by the emergency rescue of 14 horses from a nearby ranch.
Crystal Comer’s mother owned the horses, and she refused to leave until the four remaining horses on the property were moved to safety.
“The saddest thing about this is that one of the four horses is an older mare and can hardly walk,” said Comer, 38, adding that law enforcement officers helped her access the ranch. “That mare may have to be put down.”
Kit Bailey, assistant chief at the governor’s Office of Emergency Services, summarized growing concerns about Paradise’s ability to rebound.
“In a city of 27,000 retirees and working-class folks that lost 90 to 95% of its structures, there is no housing to support a population to support its own economy,” he said. There are also questions about how many residents were insured — and at what level — in a high fire hazard area, he said.
“There will be a lot of people walking” away, he said. “I’ve talked to a lot of them.”
The situation may differ from the post-fire recovery in the Santa Rosa area a year ago, where prices for burned lots and available rentals quickly skyrocketed. That was due to demand and the region’s comparatively affluent population.
Despite the massive destruction, Paradise Police Department Sgt. John Alvies held out hope.
“We’re resilient people, and I have faith that Paradise will come back — it damn well better.”