A soaking rainstorm gave firefighters at the Camp Fire a welcome break a day before Thanksgiving, allowing them to scale back their two-week battle against the massive blaze as the slow search for human remains continued.
The rain should help douse the flames and speed up containment efforts, fire officials said Wednesday, but it could also create dangerous conditions in the form of mudslides, flooding, slick roads and falling trees. The storm also hampered efforts to find and recover bodies.
“It’s miserable,” said Dustin Topp, an engineer with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, as he worked in the rain. His team was combing through a trailer park that was home to people 55 and older, looking for human remains and checking for hazards like septic tanks.
As of Wednesday night, 83 deaths had been reported from the Camp Fire. Two remains were found on Wednesday, one in a structure in Paradise and another in a structure in Magalia, said Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea in a Wednesday night press conference.
Cal Fire Capt. Joshpae White said the rain can increase the amount of moisture in the air and cool embers on the ground, which helps tamp down the fire. But it can also weigh down tree limbs, causing them to break off and fall. Mixed with water, oil on the roads and flame retardant on the soil create slick conditions for fire trucks and other service vehicles.
“You don’t know exactly where it’s going to be until you’re staring at it on the radar,” she said.
The rain did not appear to dissuade evacuees staying in a few dozen tents adjacent to a Walmart parking lot in Chico. Officials have been encouraging them to leave for the past few days, without forcing them out. Visitors brought coffee and donations on Wednesday and told them a bus would come by in the afternoon to take them to a shelter if they wanted to go.
The first step in searching a ruined dwelling is to remove the roof, said Alameda County Fire Capt. Brandon Baley, who was leading a crew looking through the debris of a single-family home. But the rain had turned the roof to oatmeal, making the work much slower and more challenging.
A cadaver dog discovered remains in the bathroom of the house. White, with Cal Fire, said the rain can actually help dogs find bodies. But the water can also turn ash to a slurry paste and move around the remains.
The number of people unaccounted for after the fire dropped to 563 people Wednesday, down by 307 a day prior. Authorities said the jump was the result of catching up on a backlog of voice-mail messages reporting missing people. The list of missing peaked at nearly 1,300 over the weekend, and several hundred of those names have since been removed.