California wildfires tracker: Los Angeles area faces new blaze as rain could prove useful in taming deadly flames

Chris Riotta

Numerous massive wildfires ripping through California have left thousands of residents displaced and killed dozens, as firefighters embarked on a grim search for the missing.

At least 48 people were confirmed dead in the so-called Camp Fire that turned the Northern California town of Paradise and outlying areas into hell on earth, making it the deadliest blaze in state history.

Meanwhile, local shelters across the state featured pictures and notes plastered across the walls, alerting residents of missing loved ones whose families were searching for them in the region.

Here’s the state of conditions across California and what’s expected for the area over the next days and weeks ahead.

Southern California: Heavy winds and new fire starts

In Southern California, crews battling an enormous wildfire have struggled to widen and extend firebreaks before the return of winds that may once again drive the flames out of control.

The winds will presumably end a three-day lull that allowed firefighters to contain about 60 per cent of the Thomas fire, currently burning in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. The fire has burned hundreds of homes and is blamed for the deaths of a firefighter as well as an evacuee.

It’s also the second largest in 85 years for California, and will likely become the largest in history as flames continued to eat into nearby forest land.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke cancelled a trip to Asia and planned to visit the fire zones Wednesday and Thursday.

The cause of the fires remained under investigation, but they broke out around the time and place that two utilities reported equipment trouble. Governor-elect Gavin Newsom, who takes office in January, sidestepped questions about what action should be taken against utilities if their power lines are found to be responsible.

People who lost homes in the Northern California blaze sued Pacific Gas & Electric Co. on Tuesday, accusing the utility of negligence and blaming it for the fire. An email to PG&E was not immediately returned.

Northern California: Grim search for missing underway

In Northern California, fire crews still fighting the blaze that obliterated the town of Paradise contended with wind gusts up to 40 miles per hour (64 kph) overnight on Tuesday.

The exact number of missing was unclear, but many friends and relatives of those living in the fire zone said they had not heard from loved ones. Some went to shelters looking for the missing.

The flames reportedly jumped 300 feet, stretching across the entirety of Lake Oroville. The fire had grown to 177 square miles (303 square kilometres) and was just 25 per cent contained, authorities said.

Fortunately, winds were expected to weaken on Monday night.

The 48 dead in Northern California made this blaze the deadliest single fire on record, surpassing the toll from a 1933 blaze in Griffith Park in Los Angeles that killed 29. A series of wildfires in Northern California’s wine country last fall killed 44 people and destroyed more than 5,000 homes.

What’s next: An exhaustive road to recovery

Governor Jerry Brown said California is “pretty well maxxed out” from fighting several deadly wildfires, and he expressed gratitude for help from surrounding states and the federal government. He said the state is doing everything possible to prevent fires, but “some things only God can do.”

The National Weather Service said winds would slack off sufficiently during the afternoon, allowing authorities to lower wildfire warnings from their highest “red flag” levels.

Forecasters cautioned, however, that low humidity levels would keep danger levels elevated.

Authorities allowed residents back into several more communities on Tuesday, including a section of Malibu. Other areas have been repopulated since the weekend. As many as 250,000 people were ordered out at the height of the fire.

Officials tempered optimism with caution, saying there were hotspots and pockets of unburned vegetation that could ignite.

“We are not out of the woods yet. We still have some incredibly tough conditions ahead of us,” Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said Tuesday.

Additional reporting by AP