Gridley (US): A Northern California wildfire that destroyed a foothill hamlet has become the state’s deadliest blaze of the year. So far 11 people are confirmed dead – and the toll could climb as searchers look for 16 missing people. Authorities said that this is the worst wildfire to have occurred in California in a decade.
The North Complex fire that exploded in wind-drive flames earlier in the week was advancing more slowly Friday. This happened after the winds eased and smoke from the blaze shaded the area and lowered the temperature. It allowed firefighters to make progress, authorities said.
However, the smoke made for poor visibility and fire helicopters couldn’t fly Thursday.
In most parts of the state, red flag warnings of extreme fire danger because of hot, dry weather or gusty winds were lifted.
Only a day or two earlier, the North Complex fire tore through Sierra Nevada foothills so quickly that fire crews were nearly engulfed. Locals fled for their lives to a pond, and the town of Berry Creek, population 525, was gutted.
Butte County sheriff’s Captain Derek Bell said Thursday seven bodies were discovered, bringing the total to 10 in two days. At least four people with critical burns were hospitalised.
Deputies and detectives were searching for human remains as they made their way into devastated areas. Helping them was a team of anthropologists from Chico State University, Bell said.
Burned-out and overturned cars, downed power lines and the ruins of buildings littered Berry Creek and nearby areas. One hatchback found on a dirt road had three dead dogs in it, while a pickup truck had the remnants of a guitar case and melted CDs in the bed.
More than 2,000 homes and other buildings had burned in the fire. It began began several weeks ago as a lightning-sparked collection of fires northeast of San Francisco.
The final toll is expected to be much higher. Damage assessment teams planned to begin a methodical search of the burned areas Friday.
Among those unaccounted for were Sandy Butler and her husband. They had called their son to say they were going to try to escape the flames by finding shelter in a pond.
“We’re still hoping and praying for good news,” said Jessica Fallon, who has two children with the Butler’s grandson. She considers them her own grandparents. “Everything is replaceable, but not my grandparents’ lives. I’d rather lose everything than those two,” Fallon added.