California wildfires death toll climbs to 87, almost 500 still unaccounted for

The Camp Fire is the deadliest, and most destructive in California's history.

November 23, 2018, 11:59 PM

Hundreds of people remain missing in the wake of a pair of deadly wildfires that have been burning across both ends of California.

The two monstrous blazes, which both ignited earlier this month, have claimed at least 87 lives while laying waste to a total area of nearly 400 square miles, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Officials said that the remains of at least 54 people have been positively identified so far.

The vast majority of the deaths -- 84 in total -- were due to the Camp Fire in Northern California's Butte County, making it the deadliest and most destructive wildland fire in the state's history.

The number of people missing or unaccounted for in Butte County was down to 475 on Friday evening after having reached 605 on Thursday, according to the Butte County Sheriff's Office. The number is expected to continue fluctuating as officials account for residents.

"We haven't taken the day off," Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said in a video message on Thanksgiving Day.

    There were 820 people in the field continuing search and rescue efforts on Thursday, as well as over 100 law enforcement officers protecting the areas that have been evacuated due to the Camp Fire, according to Honea.

    A multiagency task force, at the request of the Butte County Sheriff's Office, has captured detailed aerial imagery maps of damaged properties in most of the burn areas in the town of Paradise, as well as video surveys and 360-degree drone panoramas of all major roads in the area, according to the sheriff's office.

    Officials hope the maps will provide valuable information to the search and recovery teams on the ground, multiple agencies coordinating response and to the residents of the community impacted by the Camp Fire.

    "This has been a tough situation for all of us," Honea said in his video message Thursday. "We're in this together. We are Butte County strong."

    Firefighters have made significant progress in containing both wildfires in recent days, and much-needed rain doused the scorched areas Friday. However, heavy rain did bring new dangers to the burn scar areas in the form of flash floods and mudslides.

    The National Weather Service had issued a flash flood watch for the burn areas in Northern California.

    Here is more about the fires that have been devastating Northern and Southern California.

    Residences leveled by the wildfire line a neighborhood in Paradise, Calif., Nov. 15, 2018.
    Noah Berger/AP

    The Camp Fire in Northern California

    The Camp Fire ignited Nov. 8 near Pulga, a tiny community in Butte County nestled in the Plumas National Forest. The blaze exploded as strong winds fanned the flames southwest, enveloping Paradise, a bucolic community of 27,000 people in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

    The fire has virtually decimated the entire town.

    Melissa Schuster, a Paradise town council member, said her house was among those leveled by the Camp Fire.

    "Our entire five-member council is homeless," Schuster said in a Nov. 13 interview on ABC News' "Start Here" podcast. "All of our houses have been destroyed."

    Homes leveled by the Camp Fire line a development on Edgewood Lane in Paradise, Calif., Nov. 12, 2018.
    Noah Berger/AP

    The death toll from the Camp Fire increased to 84 on Thursday, after officials found still more bodies in the burned-out rubble of homes and melted cars, according to the Butte County Sheriff's Office, which has warned that the remains of some of the missing may never be recovered due to the severity of the fire.

    Thom Porter, chief of strategic planning for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the body count is expected to climb higher as search crews continue sifting through the destruction.

    "It is by far the most deadly single fire in California history and it's going to get worse, unfortunately," Porter has said of the Camp Fire.

    Many of the deaths have ocurred in Paradise.

    "The entire community of Paradise is a toxic wasteland right now," Schuster said om Nov. 13, holding back tears. "In addition to that, and this is the hardest part for me to even talk about, the number of fatalities is [among] things that we don't know at this moment and that's something that has to be determined before people can move back in."

    PHOTO: A Sept. 10, 2018, image of the Kilcrease circle community in Paradise, Calif., compared to a Nov. 17, 2018 image this  area was destroyed by the deadly Camp Fire.
    A Sept. 10, 2018, image of the Kilcrease circle community in Paradise, Calif., compared to a Nov. 17, 2018 image this area was destroyed by the deadly Camp Fire.
    Satellite image/DigitalGlobe via Reuters

    The Camp Fire, which has scorched a total of 153,336 acres in Butte County, was 95 percent contained Thursday night as thousands of exhausted firefighters worked around the clock to quell the inferno, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

    More than 18,600 structures have been destroyed by the blaze.

    Two prison inmate firefighters were among a total of three firefighters who have been injured while battling the Camp Fire, officials told ABC News.

    Last week, Gov. Brown toured the devastation caused by the Camp Fire along with Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), as well as U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

    "This is one of the worst disasters I've ever seen in my career, hands down," Long told reporters at the scene Nov. 14.

    PHOTO: A search and rescue team combs through the debris for possible human remains at Paradise Gardens, Nov. 16, 2018  in Paradise, Calif.
    A search and rescue team combs through the debris for possible human remains at Paradise Gardens, Nov. 16, 2018 in Paradise, Calif.
    Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/Polaris

    The Woolsey Fire in Southern California

    The Woolsey Fire also ignited Nov. 8 near the city of Simi Valley in Ventura County and rapidly spread south to Los Angeles County. The wind-driven flames jumped the 101 Freeway before sweeping through the celebrity enclaves of Malibu and Calabasas.

    The entire city of Malibu and a sprawling naval base near the seaside city of Oxnard were among the areas under mandatory evacuation orders, as officials warned the blaze could potentially spread all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

    A home is engulfed in flames during the Woolsey Fire in Malibu, Calif., Nov. 9, 2018.
    Gene Blevins/Reuters

    Evacuation orders have since been lifted for some areas, including parts of Malibu, as firefighters successfully stretched containment levels.

    The Woolsey Fire, which torched a total of 96,949 acres in Ventura and Los Angeles counties, was fully contained by Wednesday night, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

    In all, 1,500 structures were destroyed and another 341 have been damaged.

    Firefighters knock down flames in the Point Dume neighborhood of Malibu, Calif., on Nov. 10, 2018, after the Woolsey Fire tore through the neighborhood overnight.
    Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

    The blaze burned down a portion of Paramount Ranch in Agoura Hills known as “Western Town,” where hundreds of movies and television shows, including HBO’s "Westworld," have been filmed, dating back to the 1920s.

    The Woolsey Fire has been blamed for the deaths of at least three people, and three firefighters sustained injuries while battling the flames, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

    The Santa Monica Mountains are seen left blackened by the Woolsey Fire near Malibu, Calif., Nov. 14, 2018.
    David Mcnew/AFP/Getty Images

    A public health emergency

    U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has declared a public health emergency in California, where the wildfires forced the evacuation of at least two hospitals and eight other health facilities.

    "We are working closely with state health authorities and monitoring the needs of healthcare facilities to provide whatever they may need to save lives and protect health," Azar said in a Nov. 14 statement. "This declaration will help ensure that Americans who are threatened by these dangerous wildfires and who rely on Medicare, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program have continuous access to the care they need."

    The smoke from the flames descended across the Golden State and choked the air in major cities.

    Smoke from the Camp Fire spreading over Northern California towards the Pacific Ocean, Nov. 16, 2018.
    NASA Worldview/EPA via Shutterstock

    Smoke advisories were issued for the affected region amid concerns that smoke from the fires could present a "significant health threat" for people with asthma and other lung conditions, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Residents were advised to stay indoors as much as possible and to wear a protective mask when venturing outside.

    Berkeley Earth, a California-based nonprofit that analyzes air quality in real-time, ranked San Francisco, Stockton and Sacramento as the world's three "most polluted cities" on Nov. 16.

    Meanwhile, there has been an outbreak of norovirus at a shelter in Butte County housing evacuees, according to Lisa Almaguer, public information officer for Butte County Public Health.

    People who are ill at the shelter have been taken to a separate location, are using separate restroom facilities and are being cared for by public health experts, according to Almaguer, who said the presence of the contagious virus is "not uncommon," especially at this time of year and "with hundreds of people living in close quarters."

    President Donald Trump greets California Governor Jerry Brown and Governor-elect Gavin Newsom, left, as he arrives at Beale Air Force Base in California, Nov. 17, 2018.
    Soel Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

    President Trump tours unprecedented devastation

    President Donald Trump arrived in California on Nov. 17 to survey the scene of surreal devastation and meet with firefighters, alongside California Gov. Jerry Brown and the state's governor-elect, Gavin Newsom.

    The president stopped first in the town of Paradise, where he called the damage "total devastation."

    "We've never seen anything like this in California, we've never seen anything like this yet. It's like total devastation," Trump told reporters. "I think people have to see this really to understand it."

    The president later visited Malibu to tour the destruction from the Woolsey Fire.

    Trump pledged federal assistance to California following his visit, just days after he threatened to withhold funds from the state due to what he described as "gross mismanagement of forests."

    ABC News' Karine Hafuta, Marilyn Heck, Julia Jacobo and Bonnie McLean contributed to this report

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