The terrible toll of California’s wildfires became more evident as a mother confirmed her 16-year-old son was among those killed when an inferno tore through several hamlets in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada this week.
Jessica Williams, who earlier pleaded for her missing son Josiah to call her, told CBS13 Sacramento that DNA confirmed the teen’s death.
“He was alone, terrified and ran for his life … My son was a good, smart, caring young boy that died alone and it kills me thinking about what he was going through,” the TV station reported her saying Friday.
It was not immediately clear if the teen was counted among the 10 wildfire deaths or 16 missing persons reported so far by local authorities.
Neighbouring Oregon and Washington also have been besieged. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said Friday “dozens of people” are missing from the large wildfires that have burned across the state.
Brown made the announcement at a news briefing Friday afternoon, and said the reports of missing people come from blazes in southern Oregon near Medford and the northern part of the state near the state capital of Salem.
The North Complex fire near the small city of Oroville, Calif., that exploded in wind-driven flames earlier in the week was advancing more slowly Friday after the winds eased and smoke from the blaze shaded the area and lowered the temperature, authorities said.
Gov. Gavin Newsom toured the fire-ravaged region Friday and strongly asserted that climate change was evident and pledged to redouble efforts to “decarbonize” the economy.
“The debate is over around climate change. Just come to the state of California, observe it with your own eyes,” he said, citing the hottest August in state history, 14,000 dry lightning strikes in three days, record-breaking temperatures, drought and millions of dead trees.
The immediate good news, he said, was in the weather was beginning to co-operate, with winds settling down and the possibility of modest precipitation.
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The North Complex fire tore through the Sierra Nevada foothills so quickly that fire crews were nearly engulfed, locals fled for their lives to a pond, and the town of Berry Creek, population 525, and other communities were gutted.
On Thursday, Butte County sheriff’s Capt. Derek Bell said seven bodies were discovered, bringing the total to 10 in two days. At least four people with critical burns were hospitalized.
Deputies and detectives were searching for human remains as they made their way into devastated areas with a team of anthropologists from Chico State University, Bell said.
More than 2,000 homes and other buildings had burned in the fire, which began several weeks ago as a lightning-sparked collection of blazes northeast of San Francisco. The final toll is expected to be much higher. Damage assessment teams planned to begin a methodical search of the burned areas on Friday.
‘Praying for good news’
Among those unaccounted for were Sandy Butler and her husband, who had called their son to say they were going to try to escape the flames by finding shelter in a pond.
“We’re still hoping and praying for good news,” said Jessica Fallon, who has two children with the Butlers’ grandson and considers them her own grandparents. “Everything is replaceable, but not my grandparents’ lives. I’d rather lose everything than those two. They kind of held the family together.”
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The speed and ferocity of the fire astonished observers, even those who remembered a blaze only two years earlier that killed some 85 people and devastated the town of Paradise, a few miles away from the current blaze.
More than 12,500 square kilometres have burned so far this year — more land than Rhode Island, Delaware and Washington, D.C., combined — and fall is typically the worst season for fires. Nineteen people have been killed and at least 4,000 structures have burned across California.
“It’s a historic season on top of a historic season that replaced a historic season. We just keep setting new precedents, and then we keep destroying them,” said Sean Norman, a battalion chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Smoke blew into vineyards in wine country north of San Francisco, and rose above scenic Big Sur on the Central Coast and in the foothills and mountains of Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Diego counties in the southern part of the state.
U.S. President Donald Trump spoke with Newsom “to express his condolences for the loss of life and reiterate the administration’s full support to help those on the front lines of the fires,” according to White House spokesperson Judd Deere.