California wildfires: Rain expected to help clear air, but complicate search and rescue

WATCH ABOVE: In California, wildfires have now destroyed more than 11,000 buildings--many of them homes. There are still more than 1,200 people missing. Making sure they're accounted is the major task at hand. As Ines de La Cuetara reports, the hope is that they just haven't been able to connect with loved ones.

PARADISE, Calif. — Rain is on the way for fire-scorched and smoke-choked northern California, forecasters said on Sunday, as the search for the dead and missing continued after the state’s most destructive wildfires.

The wildfires have already claimed at least 76 lives and the number of people missing jumped on Saturday to 1,276, despite authorities locating hundreds of people who scattered when the Camp Fire tore through the mountain town of Paradise.

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Up to four inches of rain is expected to fall from late on Tuesday through Friday in the Sierra foothills, the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center said, including in Paradise, which was all but obliterated by the Camp Fire.

“Nobody could have thought this would ever happen,” President Donald Trump told reporters as he visited Paradise on Saturday, speaking amid the charred wreckage of the town’s Skyway Villa Mobile Home and RV Park.

Forensic recovery teams were expected to continue to sift through the charred wreckage on Sunday, relying on DNA to confirm identities.

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Rain will also drop on San Francisco, helping to clear the air filled with unhealthy levels of smoke from the Camp Fire about 175 miles (280 km) to the north.

Some sporting events were canceled in the San Francisco Bay area on Saturday as “unhealthy” air was measured by the Environmental Protection Agency, the San Francisco Chronicle and other media reported. Older people and children were advised to stay indoors.

The rain will help clear that out, said Patrick Burke, a lede forecaster with the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.

However, the rain will be a “one-two-punch” he said.

“It’ll bring much needed relief to the firefighters and to the air quality, but there’s a potential for dangerous mudslides wherever vegetation is burned away on slopes and hills,” he said.

“The rain will be steady through Friday with about three inches and spots that could get four or more inches of rain,” he said. “And again, anywhere the vegetation is burned away, there’s not a lot to hold the soil and debris in place.”

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Up to two inches of rain is also expected to fall on southern California this week, including north of Sacramento where the so-called Woolsey fire claimed at least three lives, Burke said.

On Saturday, two forensic anthropologists for the University of Nevada, Reno, were helping firefighters sort through the wreckage at a mobile home park for senior citizens in Paradise.

Firefighters peeled back the metal sheet of a collapsed roof as the anthropologists picked up visibly charred bone fragments, sorting them into paper bags.

Roger Fielding, chief deputy coroner with the Martin County Sheriff’s Office, said that each site was treated as a crime scene, with every step of recovery documented with photographs.

“Our job is to pick up any items that might reflect who this person might be,” he said.

Trump was accompanied on his visit on Saturday by California Governor Jerry Brown and Governor-elect Gavin Newsom. Brown said the federal government was doing what it needed to do, including supporting first responders and helping with clean-up and search for victims.

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Trump has blamed the recent spate of fires on forest mismanagement, and he said he discussed the issue with Brown and Newsom on the ride into Paradise.

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More than a week later, firefighters have managed to carve containment lines around 55 percent of the blaze’s perimeter.

Besides the toll on human life, property losses from the blaze make it the most destructive in California history, posing the additional challenge of providing long-term shelter for many thousands of displaced residents.

© 2018 Reuters

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