ABOVE PHOTO: Shutterstock
By Kathleen Ronayne
MAGALIA, Calif. — Cool weather helped fire crews gain ground Thursday against the nation’s deadliest wildfire in a century, as the search went on for more bodies in the ashes of Paradise and surrounding communities. At least 56 people were killed, with 130 others missing a week after the flames swept through.
The nearly 220-square-mile (570-square-kilometer) blaze was 40 percent contained, the state fire agency said, and firefighters succeeded in slowing the flames’ advance toward populated areas.
More than 450 searchers were assigned to look for remains in Paradise, which was all but destroyed, and outlying areas such as Magalia, a forested Northern California town of about 11,000. Many of the missing were elderly and from Magalia.
“If this town does recover, it’s going to take many, many years,” said Johnny Pohmagevich, an 18-year Magalia resident who lives up the road from many burned homes.
Police drove around town, searching for those still in their homes and checking if they needed food and water.
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said Wednesday night that 130 people were on the missing list.
Officials in Northern California put the number of homes lost there at nearly 8,800, and the sheriff said the task of recovering remains had become so vast that his office brought in 287 more searchers Wednesday, including National Guard troops. The searchers used 22 cadaver dogs.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke joined California Gov. Jerry Brown on a visit to Paradise on Wednesday, saying it was the worst fire devastation he had ever seen.
“Now is not the time to point fingers,” Zinke said. “There are lots of reasons these catastrophic fires are happening.” He cited higher temperatures, dead trees and the poor forest management.
The governor said officials would need to learn how to better prevent fires from becoming so deadly.
It will take years to rebuild, if people decide that’s what should be done, said Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “The infrastructure is basically a total rebuild at this point,” he said.
While most of Paradise was wiped out, in Magalia a sharp dividing line marked those who survived and those who did not.
“Magalia has so many trees. I honestly can’t believe it just didn’t get leveled,” said Sheri Palade, an area real estate agent.
Tom Driver, the office manager and elder at Magalia Community Church, said he heard the church made it through the blaze, though he did not know whether his home did.
“I’ve been able to account for all of the congregation,” said Driver, who is staying with family in Oakland. “They’re all over the place, but they got out in pretty good time.”
Kim Bonini, one of those who got out safely Nov. 8, left after hearing someone on a bullhorn two blocks over urging people to leave. The power in her home had gone out that morning, leaving her with only her car radio.
“My cell didn’t work, my house phone didn’t work, nothing. Nothing except for me crawling into my car,” Bonini said from her daughter’s home in Chico. “If I wouldn’t have heard them two blocks down, I wouldn’t have known I had to evacuate.”