Massive Wildfires Rage in California
Saturday, September 30, 2023

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The few residents of the burned-out Northern California city of Paradise who were able to inspect their property on Saturday saw nothing but disappointment. Nearly the entire city of 27,000 residents lay in ruins and most were still barred from returning to the still hazardous town where small fires continued to flare. Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said Saturday 14 additional bodies were found, bringing the death toll to 23. The victims have not been identified. Two people were found dead in a wildfire in Southern California, bringing the total number of fatalities in Northern California Wildfire Hits 76 With Nearly 1,300 Missing. 


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 The Woolsey Fire Burns Towards Paramount Ranch on November 9, 2018 in Agoura Hills, California

The fire became California's third deadliest since record-keeping began, with the death toll surpassing that from a blaze last year that ravaged the city of Santa Rosa. An additional search and recovery team on top of the four already on the ground was being brought in to search for remains, Honea said. An anthropology team from California State University, Chico was helping with that effort, he said. The state Department of Justice was sending a mobile DNA lab to the area to collect genetic material from the surviving relatives of the missing to speed the identification process.



The sheriff's office still has 110 outstanding reports of missing people, Honea said. In some cases, investigators have only been able to recover bones and bone fragments, he said. He encouraged family members of the missing to submit DNA samples that could be compared with remains that are recovered. "This weighs heavy on all of us," he said. "Myself and especially those staff members who are out there doing what is important work but certainly difficult work." Honea added that he's hopeful that more of those missing people will be found. The department initially had more than 500 calls about citizens who were unable to reach loved ones.  But they have been able to help find many, he said.


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Trump is suggesting erroneously that forest management played a role, but California’s current wildfires aren’t forest fires. “These fires aren’t even in forests,” said Max Moritz, a wildfire specialist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Rather, the Camp and Woolsey fires, which are ripping through Northern and Southern California, began in areas known as the wildland-urban interface: places where communities are close to undeveloped areas, making it easier for fire to move from forests or grasslands into neighborhoods.


Firefighters battling Malibu Fires in California


There are several ingredients as to why California has so many wildfires:


Satellite Images of the Califiornia Coast


A 2015 report by the United States Department of Agriculture found that between 2000 and 2010 (the last year for which data was available), the number of people moving into the wildland-urban interface had increased by 5 percent. According to the report, 44 million houses, equivalent to one in every three houses in the country, are in the wildland-urban interface. The highest concentrations are in Florida, Texas and, yes, California.


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It is true that California wildfires are getting larger and that most of the state’s largest wildfires have happened this century. The Mendocino Complex Fire, earlier this year, was the biggest California fire on record, as measured by acres burned. The Camp Fire is already the most destructive in state history, having razed more than 6,000 homes. 



The fires aren’t just getting bigger; they’re becoming more unpredictable, too. They are often burning hot through the night (when they used to cool), racing faster up hillsides and torching neighborhoods that were once relatively safe. Researchers are attributing at least part of the difference to climate change, because in a warming world vegetation dries out faster and burns more easily.


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And the most “deadly and costly” fires happen at the wildland-urban interface, because they damage houses, towns and lives. The Camp Fire has already matched the deadliest fire in state history, killing at least 29 people, and the death toll may rise. “We have vulnerable housing stock already out there on the landscape. These are structures that were often built to building codes from earlier decades and they’re not as fire resistant as they could be,” Dr. Moritz said. “This issue of where and how we built our homes has left us very exposed to home losses and fatalities like these.”


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