Wildfires raged at both ends of California on Sunday, with the deadly infernos barely contained and strong winds and dry conditions in the forecast.
The death toll stood at 31 and was likely to increase as rescue workers reached vast regions left in charred ruins. The Northern California sheriff also reported that 228 people are still unaccounted for in the massive wildfire.
Thousands of people have evacuated with what little of their life’s possession they could escape with.
Authorities say one of the California wildfires is about 25 percent contained and the other only 10 percent.
More than 8,000 firefighters are battling the Woolsey Fire and the Hill Fire in southern California, and the Camp Fire, in the northern part of the state, that erupted Thursday fueled by drought conditions and wind.
Officials said the Camp Fire has become the most destructive wildfire in state history, and the third deadliest.
Previously, the Tubbs Fire, which burned nearly 16,000 hectares in Lake, Napa, and Sonoma counties in 2017, had been considered the most destructive wildfire in state history. The Tubbs Fire killed 22 people and destroyed more than 5,500 structures.
The Butte County Sheriff’s office said the Camp Fire victims were mostly found dead inside or near their cars. The sudden evacuation led to highway gridlock, forcing some to flee on foot.
Officials said the fire has destroyed 6,453 homes and another 260 commercial structures and has grown to 404 square kilometers.
The blaze nearly quadrupled Thursday into Friday. Officials say the blaze is only five percent contained.
Evacuations were ordered for the east side of the neighboring town of Chico, a city of about 93,000 people, as flames from the blaze were being driven by 56 kph winds.
The Woolsey Fire is threatening about 75,000 homes in Ventura County, northwest of Los Angeles.
Two arrests were made for looting in Ventura County.
L.A. County Sheriff’s Department Chief John Benedict said Saturday, “There is zero tolerance for any looting.”
Ventura county is also the location of a mass shooting this week that killed 12 people.
The mayor of the city of Thousand Oaks, where the mass shooting took place, says three-quarters of his city is under fire evacuation orders.
President weighs in
U.S. President Donald Trump, in France for the centenary remembrance of the end of World War I, continued to blame state forest managers for the devastation, but did not mention years of drought in the most populous U.S. state.
“With proper Forest Management, we can stop the devastation constantly going on in California. Get Smart!” Trump said on Twitter.
Earlier, he warned California residents that the “fires are expanding very, very quickly (in some cases 80-100 acres a minute). If people don’t evacuate quickly, they risk being overtaken by the fire. Please listen to evacuation orders from State and local officials!”
He said 4,000 firefighters are battling the Camp and Woolsey fires that had burned nearly 70,000 hectares. “Our hearts are with those fighting the fires, the 52,000 who have evacuated,” and the families of those who have been killed. “The destruction is catastrophic. God Bless them all.”
But he contended, “There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!
But authorities in California disputed Trump’s assessment.
Brian Rice, president of California Professional Firefighters, said, “…nearly 60 percent of California forests are under federal management … It is the federal government that has chosen to divert resources away from forest management, not California … At this desperate time, we would encourage the president to offer support in word and deed, instead of recrimination and blame.”
On Sunday, Rice told CNN that Trump’s statement was “stupid” and “callous” and did not take into account California’s seven-year drought.
LeRoy Westerling, a climate and fire scientist at University of California Merced, told the San Francisco Chronicle Trump’s tweets oversimplified the issue in California.
“To have a president come out and say it’s all because of forest management is ridiculous. It completely ignores the dynamic of what’s going on around us,” he told the Chronicle. He said rising temperatures and longer spells of dry weather were behind an increase in not only the number of wildfires but their ferocity as well.