Weather and Natural Disasters

Authorities search for missing in wind-whipped California wildfires

Key Points
  • More than 200 people were missing early on Monday in California's deadliest and most destructive blaze on record.
  • It is one of two fires raging in the state, which have killed at least 31 people and forced more than a quarter of a million evacuations.
  • California utility stocks plummeted on Monday with shares of PG&E and Edison International dropping 16 and 11 percent, respectively.
Raging California wildfires leave at least 31 dead, hundreds missing
Raging California wildfires leave at least 31 dead, hundreds missing

Authorities searched on Monday for more than 200 people unaccounted for in one of the wildfires rampaging through parts of California, voicing concern about a possible rising death toll, as gusty, dry winds spurred the spreading flames.

The raging blaze in northern California known as the Camp Fire, the state's most destructive on record, had left at least 228 people missing as of early Monday, according to Kory Honea, sheriff of Butte County, site of the fire. That fire and one in southern California called the Woolsey Fire have killed at least 31 people.

The blazes left behind scenes of utter ruin, with homes and businesses reduced to charred wreckage and the winds also spreading large amounts of ash.

Both fires have been whipped up by hot dry winds. Winds of up to 40 miles per hour (64 km per hour) were expected to continue in southern California through Tuesday, heightening the risk of fresh blazes ignited by scattered embers, while the winds were forecast to begin diminishing later on Monday at the site of the Camp Fire. The wildfires flared in two new locations on Monday morning in southern California, officials said.

The fires have displaced more than 224,000 people, officials said. About 8,000 firefighters using fire fighting equipment including helicopters and air tankers were battling the flames, with assistance coming from out of state.

The Camp Fire, 40 miles (60 km) north of Sacramento, burned down more than 6,700 homes and businesses in the town of Paradise, more structures than any other wildfire recorded in California.

The fire had scorched more than 113,000 acres (45,729 hectares) and was 25 percent contained, officials said on Monday. Its death toll of 29 equals that of the Griffith Park Fire in 1933, the deadliest wildfire on record in California.

The blaze has probably caused between $2 billion and $4 billion in insured property damage, Morgan Stanley estimated in a report on Monday.

Deadly wildfires burning across California
Deadly wildfires burning across California

Speaking on CNN, Honea said while he holds out hope that many people listed as missing will turn up safe, "given what we've dealt with so far with casualties as a result of this fire, I have concerns that it (the death toll) will rise."

In southern California, the Woolsey Fire had burned more than 91,000 acres (36,826 hectares) and was 20 percent contained, with 370 structures destroyed, officials said. The fire had forced authorities to issue evacuation orders for a quarter million people in Ventura and Los Angeles counties and beachside communities including the Malibu beach colony, home to many celebrities.

At least two people have died in the Woolsey Fire, which is 20 miles (32 km) long and 14 miles (22 km) wide, threatening 57,000 structures, officials said.

"These are extreme conditions. If there's a fire in your neighborhood, don't wait for an evacuation order, leave," Los Angeles County Fire Department Chief Daryl Osby told a news conference.

Many of those allowed to return were left without power or cellphone service, even if their homes were spared by the flames.

Malibu resident Tony Haynes described how strong winds brought the fire through his neighborhood during the weekend, with the sky growing dark, saying there was so much smoke he put on his scuba-diving tank to breathe. Haynes said his home survived.

"It all came down to luck and a whole lot of buckets of water," he told KTLA 5.

A smaller blaze in Southern California, the Hill Fire, was 75 percent contained, officials said.

A Cal Fire firefighter monitors a burning home as the Camp Fire moves through the area on November 9, 2018 in Magalia, California. 
Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

'It's all gone'

Local residents were despondent over the fire damage.

"It's not the house, because you can rebuild. But it's what is inside the house. It's all gone," Malibu resident Marcella Shirk, 82, told KABC-TV. "And that's what hurts, those kinds of things hurt, because you can't replace that."

California utility stocks plummeted for a second trading day on Monday. Shares of PG&E, which operates in northern California, dropped as much as 16 percent, bringing its decline over two sessions to 29 percent, equivalent to $8 billion. Edison International, owner of Southern California Edison Company, slumped 11 percent, leaving its stock market value $5 billion lower since Thursday, when the fires broke out.

Governor Jerry Brown has asked U.S. President Donald Trump to declare a major disaster to bolster the emergency response and help residents recover. Trump, a Republican who has often criticized Democrat-led California on a variety of issues including immigration enforcement, blamed poor forest management by the state for the infernos.

Brian Rice, president of the California Professional Firefighters, called Trump's statement "ill-timed" given the loss of life and ongoing search for missing people.

"You can't just make a blanket statement," Rice told MSNBC on Monday, adding that fires and forest management were complicated and that weather also was a major factor.

"Right now, what is needed is, really, support," Rice said.