As California fires rage, officials start grim search for the dead in blackened ruins

CNN — As firefighters race to slow down the ferocious Camp Fire before the weather turns against them, crews are combing through blackened ruins to assess damage and search for human remains.

The raging wildfire started Thursday, wiping out one California town and killing at least 23 people. Where roads and homes once stood are downed power lines, charred cars and piles of smoldering debris.

It’s now the third-deadliest wildfire and the most destructive in state history. And the painstaking process of finding the missing and identifying the dead is challenging, with some of the bodies recovered burned beyond recognition.

“In some cases the only remains we are able to recover are bones or bone fragments,” Butte County Sheriff and Coroner Kory Honea told reporters. “I know that members of the community who are missing loved ones are anxious, and I know that the news of us recovering bodies has to be disconcerting.”

The majority of the remains were found in or near the fire-ravaged town of Paradise, California. Many were found inside or near homes or in vehicles, officials said. Authorities said they have reports of 110 people still missing in the area affected by the blaze.

A trio of fires

The Camp Fire is the largest of three major fires burning at both ends of the state. In Southern California, thousands of people are still in shelters waiting until it’s safe to check on their homes. Here’s what we know about the fires:

• Camp Fire: It has burned 105,000 acres and it’s 20% contained, Cal Fire said.

• Woolsey and Hill Fire: Fire officials said the Woolsey Fire had spread to 83,275 acres and was 5% contained. The smaller Hill Fire was 4,531 acres and was 65% contained as of Saturday.

• Massive evacuations: More than 300,000 were forced from their homes statewide, in Los Angeles County that number is 170,000.

 Destruction: In Northern California, 6,453 structures have been destroyed. In Southern California, 177 structures have been lost but more than 57,000 are in danger, fire officials said.

• Could the fires grow more? Maybe. The National Weather Service says strong winds and low humidity, which could help the fire spread, are expected Sunday through Monday morning.

Woolsey Fire: Some residents return home after ‘firestorm’

Craig Clunies-Ross and his wife had seen wildfires before and they were prepared when it was time to evacuate their Malibu home. But what they saw when they stepped outside shocked them.

“It was a 100-foot wall of flames. It was like a firestorm, it was roaring,” he told CNN affiliate KABC about the Woolsey Fire.

The family quickly took photos, a few clothes and other essentials hoping they could come back to their home. On Saturday, they were among several families who drove through scorched hills and discovered their homes were leveled.

As a portion of the more than 200,000 people who fled in Ventura and Los Angeles counties returned home, authorities warned residents that danger is not over.

“Mother Nature has given us a short reprieve … but we know tomorrow Mother Nature’s gonna turn her fan back on and the winds are going to start blowing,” Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen told reporters. He said he cautioned his firefighters and the public not to be lulled by the better weather Saturday.

“Stay vigilant,” he said.

Fire officials said the Santa Ana winds that fueled the blaze had temporarily died down Saturday, giving them a brief opportunity to make progress but another round is forecast to whip the area Sunday through Tuesday.

“This is just a lull,” Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said, “so we’re going to take advantage of that and try to get as much line perimeter in as we can with the expectation that we will get more winds tomorrow.”