Death Toll Continues to Rise in California Wildfires

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A satellite view of California's Camp Fire on Nov. 8 caught using the Operational Land Imager on Landsat 8. (Photo: NASA)

California is fighting yet another wildfire, but this one is different. It has become the deadliest in state history in just a matter of days.

The Camp Fire — named because it started near Camp Creek Road in Butte County, about 80 miles north of Sacramento — started in the early morning hours of Nov. 8. Firefighters were dispatched shortly after the fire's start, but low humidity and strong winds spurred the fire on, and it grew quickly.

As of Nov. 16, the fire has burned 142,000 acres and at least 80 people have died as a result of the fire's rapid spread. Only 45 percent of the fire is contained.

"This is an unprecedented event," Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said, according to Capital Public Radio in Sacramento. "If you've been up there, you also know the magnitude of the scene we're dealing with. I want to recover as many remains as we possibly can, as soon as we can. Because I know the toll it takes on loved ones."

More than 1,300 people have been reported missing as people struggle to find out if their loved ones safely evacuated.

"A lot of people are displaced, and a lot of people don't know we're looking for them," Butte County Sheriff and Coroner Kory Honea told CNN. "You have to understand, this is a dynamic list... Some days might be less people, some days might be more people, but my hope at the end of the day, we have accounted for everybody."

This has been the most intense year for wildfires on record in California. According to the National Geographic Area Coordination Center, as of Nov. 13, California has had 7,688 wildfires, which have burned 1,759,375 acres. That equals a swath of land slightly larger than the state of Delaware.

Paradise ablaze

Firefighters attempt to control a fire at an apartment building in Paradise, California, on Nov. 9. (Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week, the city of Paradise, California, had a population of about 26,200. Not long after the Camp Fire began, Paradise residents were ordered to evacuate, but there simply wasn't enough time for many to get out.

Much of Paradise is gone now, turned to ash and charred remains. More than 10,300 structures — the vast majority of which were homes — were destroyed. Big-box stores and chain restaurants also burned.

"We're talking devastated," Cal Fire Capt. Scott McLean told CBS News. "The town center is completely on the ground. The south side as well as the north side has been hit very hard as well."

Abandoned burned-out cars sit in the middle of the road after the Camp Fire moved through the area on Nov. 8. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The roads in the path of the Camp Fire are now filled with abandoned vehicles. Traffic made it difficult for residents to get out before the fire arrived, and many chose to simply escape on foot.

Speaking to The New York Times, Anita Waters said she was trapped in her mobile home park because authorities were worried that a nearby gas station would catch fire. However, she and fellow neighbors decided to risk it and left in a group of vehicles. The police eventually intercepted them and ordered Waters into the bed of a truck, making her abandon her car. After a mile, she left the truck and went back for her car, reasoning that she'd already lost her home, and that losing her car would be too much.

As she retrieved her car and drove through the woods, avoiding ditches and stranded vehicles, she saw that others residents had not been as lucky. "There were some people that were stuck and the car was on fire and they were in the car," she said.

A home in Paradise is engulfed by fire on Nov. 8. (Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

Some residents, like Chris Gonzalez, chose not to evacuate and got very lucky. Gonzalez's house was spared from the flames, but many in his immediate area were not as fortunate.

"Basically there was like a ring of fire all around," he told The Times. "There was this thick, thick smoke, and just a bunch of ashes everywhere. The freeways are closed north and southbound, the canyons, there was no way in or out."

Nancy and Chris Brown return to site of their California home on Nov. 12. (Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

Paradise now turns to the sober task of recovering and locating the dead and missing. Search teams and coroners continue to find victims, and two mobile morgue units have been deployed as well as cadaver dogs.

Unidentified "risks and hazards" and "steep terrain in some areas will impede firefighting efforts," according to an incident report from Cal Fire. The cause of the fire remains unknown.

A fire to the south

This is all that remains of a home in Point Dume, a community in Malibu along the Pacific Coast Highway. The area was burned by the Woolsey Fire. (Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

The Camp Fire isn't the only wildfire burning in California. The Woolsey Fire in Malibu, which also started Nov. 8, has burned more than 98,000 acres and destroyed about 435 structures. More than 265,000 people have evacuated. As of Nov. 16, officials confirmed 3 fatalities.

The Santa Ana winds fanned the flames, quickly pushing it beyond firefighting capabilities. The fire reached the Pacific Coast Highway near Malibu on Nov. 9.

The Woolsey Fire has gained attention for its destruction of celebrity homes, including those belonging to Miley Cyrus, Gerard Butler and Neil Young. Popular filming locations for films and TV, including the HBO series "Westworld," were also destroyed. Pepperdine University was in danger, but so far the campus has not suffered any "major losses," according to the Los Angeles Times.

As of Nov. 16, the Woolsey Fire is 62 percent contained.

Firefighters battle a blaze at the Salvation Army Camp on Nov. 10 in Malibu. (Photo: Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

The Camp and Woolsey fires are reminders that wildfires aren't limited to forests. The communities the fires have destroyed are located along the wildland-urban interface, or places where human habitation is close to undeveloped land. This makes it easier for wildfires to jump from forests or grasslands into communities and neighborhoods.

In addition to location, strong winds, dry conditions, a lack of controlled burns and climate change have all contributed to making California's wildfires worse in recent years.