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By Tim Stelloh
Deadly wildfires burning across Northern and Southern California have killed a total of 31 people across the state and forced the evacuation of hundreds of thousands.
The grim discovery of the remains of six people in the Northern California town of Paradise brought the total number of deaths related to the Camp Fire to 29, matching the deadliest fire in state history, authorities said Sunday.
Five bodies in Paradise were found in homes and one was found in a vehicle, Butte County Sheriff Kory L. Honea told reporters.
The Camp Fire, believed to be the most destructive in state history, has burned more than 6,000 homes and scorched 111,000 acres, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire.
More than 200 people were still unaccounted for after the fire, Honea said, though many of the missing may be in shelters and unable to contact loved ones who reported them to authorities.
Twenty-nine people also died in the Griffith Park Fire of 1933, according to Cal Fire.
“We drove out of the clouds into the sunshine and could see flames on ridge, consuming everything it was touching,” said Joanna Garcia, who quickly fled the fire with her family on Thursday.
“You never think you’re going to get out of those flames,” she added.
The Woolsey Fire in Southern California also was burning Sunday across 85,000 acres — from Thousand Oaks, a city still reeling from a mass shooting that left 12 people dead last week, to the wealthy coastal enclave of Malibu. It was only 15 percent contained on Sunday evening.
In addition to killing two people, the fire threatened nearly 60,000 structures and forced the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of residents, officials said. On Sunday afternoon, Calabasas, a city of 24,000, sent out a mandatory evacuation order. In some areas of Thousand Oaks, evacuation orders were lifted and residents allowed back to their homes.
Celebrity homes were among the 177 structures destroyed by the blaze. Actor Gerard Butler posted a photo of his burnt out home in Malibu on social media, calling this a “heartbreaking time across California.”
But there was a sliver of good news: After the return on Sunday of hot, dry Santa Ana winds — which blow toward the Southern California coast from the desert, fanning wildfires — fire officials said there were no new reports of burned buildings. And firefighters were able to contain flare-ups in blustery canyons.
“Today was very challenging, but we’ve had huge successes,” Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby told reporters on Sunday afternoon.
Still, vast swaths of the state remained under a red flag warning, a designation used by the National Weather Service to indicate ideal wildland fire conditions. Nearly 150,000 people remained under mandatory evacuation orders across the state as of Sunday afternoon, said Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California Office of Emergency Services.
With 40 mph winds forecast in Southern California through Tuesday, more evacuations were possible, Ventura County Sheriff’s Sergeant Eric Bouche said.
Similar wind conditions were also forecast across much of Northern California through Monday, according to the National Weather Service.
The Camp Fire began early Thursday morning and quickly roared through the town of Paradise, population roughly 26,000 people, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Nichole Jolly, a surgical nurse at Adventist Health Feather River Hospital, recalled beginning her work day like any other — then getting an immediate evacuation order roughly an hour later and scrambling to escape town alive.
With flames on either side of her car — and a cab filling with smoke — she said she ditched the vehicle.
“I called my husband and screamed,” said Jolly, 34. “I said, ‘I think I’m gonna’ die. Tell the kids I love them. I’m not gonna’ make it home.’”
With her shoes melting and her throat burning, Jolly stumbled across a fire truck and banged on the door.
“Two fireman jump out of the truck, extinguish my pants, put me in the fire engine, wrapped me in a blanket and said: ‘Brace yourself we might not make it,'” she said.
Mayor Jody Jones said that 80 to 90 percent of people in Paradise’s residential areas lost their homes.
Authorities said that many of the bodies were recovered inside homes or found in cars overcome by flames. NBC affiliate KCRA reported that a mobile DNA lab and anthropologists were asked to help identify the dead.
Cal Fire said it doesn’t expect to have the fire, which was 25 percent contained on Sunday, fully under control until the end of the month.
In Southern California, firefighters had mostly hemmed in one other potentially dangerous blaze — the Hill Fire, which forced evacuations in Ventura Country and destroyed two buildings.
That blaze also ignited on Thursday and tore through mobile homes and mansions as it quickly spread, NBC Los Angeles reported. Two people found dead inside a vehicle on Mulholland Drive may have died after the driver became disoriented and the vehicle was engulfed in flames, Los Angeles County sheriff’s Commander Scott Gage said.
The fires occurred after years of drought and increasingly deadly and destructive fire seasons. Fire officials and climate scientists have, in part, attributed those fires to climate change, saying the state’s fire season may now be year-round.
California Gov. Jerry Brown stressed this during a news conference on Sunday night, calling this extended period of fire danger a “new abnormal.”
“This new abnormal will continue certainly into the next, 10 to 15 to 20 years,” he said. “And unfortunately, the best science is telling us that dryness, warmth, drought — all those things are going to intensify.”
Kalhan Rosenblatt and Rachel Elbaum contributed.