Fierce winds fan California wildfires, more than 200 missing

Environment

(Reuters) – Fierce, dry winds were expected to fan the flames of deadly wildfires burning in California on Monday, heightening the risk of fresh blazes from scattered embers as investigators searched for more than 200 people who unaccounted for in the one of the fires.

The so-called Camp Fire, the state’s most destructive blaze on record, had left at least 228 people missing as of early Monday, according to Kory Honea, sheriff of northern California’s Butte County, site of the fire. It and one in the state’s south have killed at least 31 people.

Both fires have been whipped up by hot dry winds expected to continue through Tuesday evening, according to officials.

The Camp Fire, 40 miles 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 111,000 acres and was 25 percent contained by late Sunday, officials said. Its death toll of 29 equals that of the Griffith Park Fire in 1933, the deadliest wildfire on record in California.

Firefighters battle the Woolsey Fire as it continues to burn in Malibu, California, U.S., November 11, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

In southern California, the Woolsey 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. But by Sunday night parts of the two counties were reopened.

The number of people missing in the Woolsey Fire was not immediately available.

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

Wind gusts of up to 60 miles per hour (100 km) were expected in the mountains, valleys and canyons of Southern California, raising the possibility of downed power lines and trees. This, in combination with low humidity, was expected to create the perfect conditions for fires to spread.

“Winds are already blowing,” Chief Daryl Osby of the Los Angeles County Fire Department said Sunday. “They are going to blow for the next three days. Your house can be rebuilt, but you can’t bring your life back.”

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Roger Kelly defied evacuation orders on Monday to sneak back into the trailer park where he lives in the Santa Monica Mountains north of Malibu. He told television station KTLA 5 that fire had rendered the area unrecognizable. “When I came in I didn’t even know where I was,” he said. “It’s just very, very emotional.”

The Woolsey Fire has burned at least 91,572 acres and destroyed 370 structures. The blaze was only 20 percent contained. At least two people have died in that fire, according to officials from the statewide agency Cal Fire, which has more than 3,200 personnel fighting the blaze.

“Favorable overnight weather conditions contributed to minimal fire growth, which allowed crews to reinforce containment lines,” the agency said on Monday morning.

In a report to California’s utilities regulator, Southern California Edison Company, a unit of Edison International (EIX.N), said it had experienced an outage at a substation in the San Fernando Valley around two minutes before the Woolsey Fire began.

The company said it was submitting its report “out of an abundance of caution as it may meet the subject of significant public attention or media coverage.”

Just last month, PG&E Corp (PCG.N) unit Pacific Gas & Electric, California’s largest public utility, cut off electric power to about 60,000 customers to prevent wildfires as high winds threatened to topple trees and power lines.

Shares of both PG&E and Edison plummeted on Friday as the wildfires spread.

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 criticized the California government in Tweets during the weekend, blaming poor forest management for the infernos.

Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta, additional reporting by Stephen Lam in Paradise; Alex Dobuzinskis, Dan Whitcomb and Dana Feldman in Los Angeles, Barbara Goldberg and Jonathan Allen in New York, and David Shepardson in Washington; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Steve Orlofsky

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