Death Toll in California Wildfires Rises to 23

Firefighters hoped that a brief lull in howling winds would give them a chance on Saturday to block, or at least slow, one of two massive California wildfires that have left at least nine people dead and driven a quarter-million people from their homes.

Cal Fire officials said the Woolsey fire, that destroyed at least 150 homes, 109 square miles and forced residents to evacuate the entire seaside town of Malibu, was still listed as “zero contained.”

Two additional fatalities reported in Malibu may have been related to the fire that swept the area Friday night, according to Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Chief John Benedict.

The Camp Fire, which wiped out the town of Paradise in Butte County, 80 miles north of Sacramento, has consumed 156 square miles and was only 20 percent contained.

Officials say more than 3,000 firefighters are battling the blaze, which is California’s most destructive wildfire since record-keeping began.

The brief respite in the high winds Saturday could give firefighters a chance to control the edges of the blazes and to swap crews, replacing firefighters who had worked for two days without rest, said Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby.

Still, some treacherous winds were expected to return Saturday night and drive the blaze south across Lake Oroville, threatening Oroville, a town of 19,000 people.

But with the winds expected to return to 35 mph gusts on Sunday, it’s likely more homes would be lost, Osby warned. Ventura County Fire Department Chief Mark Lorenzen said the devastating Santa Ana winds could last through Tuesday.

Osby said Saturday that his firefighters were reporting “conditions they have never seen in their lives.”

“We did lose a lot of homes,” he said. “But we saved thousands of homes.”

He said firefighters’ objectives for Saturday included perimeter control along the 101 freeway, and in Bell Canyon and Malibu Canyon.

Benedict told reporters that he had 200 officers on patrol for “looting suppression.” He warned that his department would have “zero tolerance” for stealing.

Two people have been arrested so far on suspicion of looting, according to Sgt. Eric Buschow of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office.

“If you come here with the intent of taking advantage of this situation, we will arrest you and you will go to jail,” Buschow said.

At Pepperdine University in Malibu, classes were canceled Saturday after a tense Friday evening. When the all-clear order was given around 9 a.m. Saturday, many students drove away from the area, many equipped with face masks.

Despite the evacuation order for Malibu, Hassen Masri, who lives in the Malibu Country Estates neighborhood that abuts the university, stayed in his house Friday night and watched the hills rage with fire around him.

Around midnight, he saw nearly 20 trucks pull onto the Pepperdine University campus once officials learned the students wouldn’t be evacuating.

“It was a hairy experience; it was bad, it was really bad,” Masri said. “When the fire came over the ridge around midnight, I thought I should leave, but I didn’t. Maybe it was crazy that the university didn’t remove the students, but I am thankful for the extra resources that brought. I felt protected by those extra trucks.”

The exotic animals at Ronnie Semler’s Saddlerock Ranch, including zebras and water buffalo, were roaming their corrals Saturday even though a structure that appeared to be a barn, several vehicles and fences burned. The Malibu ranch’s biggest attraction, Stanley the giraffe, appeared happy and curious. Except for one worker, the ranch appeared empty.

In Paris, President Donald Trump issued an emergency declaration providing federal funds for Butte, Ventura and Los Angeles counties but later threatened on Twitter to withhold federal payments to California, claiming its forest management is “so poor.”

“Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests,” he wrote. “Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”

Later Saturday, Trump tweeted again, urging residents to listen to evacuation orders from state and local officials.

“More than 4,000 are fighting the Camp and Woolsey Fires in California that have burned over 170,000 acres. Our hearts are with those fighting the fires, the 52,000 who have evacuated, and the families of the 11 who have died. The destruction is catastrophic. God Bless them all, ” Trump tweeted.

Hardest hit was Paradise, a town of 27,000 in the Sierra Nevada foothills, where nine people died, some torched inside their cars as they were attempting to flee the sudden approach of the flames.

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Source: USA Today