California Camp Fire death toll now at 77 but number of missing remains high

When I wrote about this story last week the number of missing persons was estimated at a couple hundred. Now, with the death toll officially at 77 from the northern California Camp Fire, the number of missing is 993. NPR reports that’s down several hundred over the weekend:

Authorities in California have added a fatality to the death toll from the Camp Fire, bringing its total number of deaths to at least 77.

The number of people unaccounted for has decreased to 993 — about 300 fewer than Saturday’s count, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said on Sunday.

At least 80 people have died throughout the state since wildfires broke out earlier this month. Three of those fatalities were from the Woolsey Fire in Southern California…

More than 11,700 homes and nearly 4,000 other buildings have been destroyed. The entire Northern California community of Paradise was reduced to a wasteland of ash and burned-out buildings and cars in the fire that began just after 6:30 a.m. local time on Nov. 8.

The forecast calls for significant amounts of rain this week and there is concern that could make searching for the remains of victims more difficult and could also lead to mudslides. From CNBC:

Heath Hockenberry, the National Weather Service’s fire program leader, said in “high-intensity” fires trees release gas that can form pockets and creates a “very volatile, waxy layer under the soil.”

Meanwhile, the vegetation above ground has been burnt and the root system weakened. Overall, this creates a top layer of soil that is “hydrophobic,” or extremely resistant to water, Hockenberry said.

“Throw a lot of water on that soil then gravity just takes over,” he said.

In a mudslide, the top layer of soil gives way, carrying boulders with it downhill at up to 35 miles per hour (56 kph), he said.

Back in January, 13 people were killed in southern California after mudslides swept through an area previously devastated by wildfires.

There was one upbeat story reported today about the response to the fire. Bus driver Kevin McKay is being praised for helping evacuate 22 kids and 2 teachers when fire approached their school. From CNN:

Family members of other students had already picked up their children.

But nearly two dozen students were stranded because their family members hadn’t made it to the school. McKay discussed evacuating the students with Ponderosa’s principal…

“It just kind of looked like we’d be headed into Mordor,” McKay recalled, referring to the realm of the evil lord Sauron in “The Lord the Rings” books and films…

As the smoke intensified, young lungs filled up. One student complained of being tired. Davis saw other kids dozing off.

The adults had to improvise. There was only one water bottle on the bus. McKay took off his shirt. They tore it up and doused the strips of cloth with water, so the students could use them to breathe properly, they recalled.

“That seemed to help,” McKay said.

The entire trip took five hours and McKay said there were moments when the smoke got bad that they discussed evacuating the bus. Mary Ludwig, a second-grade teacher who was on board, described McKay as “the bus driver from heaven.” Here’s a local news report on McCay who had only been working at this school for a couple months when this happened.