The wildfire situation in California has grown exponentially worse. While the death toll confirmed from the Camp and Woolsey fires is now in the dozens, the number of people missing and unaccounted for now ranges over a thousand souls.
The death toll from the Camp Fire in Northern California has increased to 71 while 1,011 people are unaccounted for, the Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said Friday. He cautioned the list is "dynamic" and will fluctuate.
The blaze is now 50 percent contained after consuming more than 145,000 acres.
In Southern California, just outside of Los Angeles, the Woolsey Fire is 78 percent contained after burning 98,000 acres.
Now, dense smoke from the fires is smothering parts of the state with what has been described as "the dirtiest air in the world."
Firefighters have been racing against time, with a red flag warning issued for Saturday night into Sunday, including winds up to 50 mph and low humidity. Rain was forecast for mid-week, which could help firefighters but also complicate the challenging search for remains.
"It's a disheartening situation," Honea said. "As much as I wish we could get through this before the rains come, I don't know if that's possible."
The other issue is the dry air has turned the smoke and ash from the fires into a massive and dangerous air quality problem for millions in the Bay Area.
The wildfires that have laid waste to vast parts of California are presenting residents with a new danger: air so thick with smoke it ranks among the dirtiest in the world.
On Friday, residents of smog-choked Northern California woke to learn that their pollution levels now exceed those in cities in China and India that regularly rank among the worst.
In the communities closest to the Paradise fire, an apocalyptic fog cloaked the roads, evacuees wandered in white masks and officials said respiratory hospitalizations had surged. Nearly 200 miles to the south, in San Francisco, the smoke was so thick that health warnings prompted widespread school closings. Even the city’s cable cars were yanked from the streets.
And researchers warned that as large wildfires become more common — spurred by dryness linked to climate change — health risks will almost surely rise. “If this kind of air quality from wildfires doesn’t get people concerned,” said Dr. John Balmes, a pulmonologist at the University of California at San Francisco, “I don’t know what will.”
At fault, researchers say, is a confluence of two modern events: More people are moving to communities in and around wooded enclaves, pushed out by factors like the rising costs of housing and the desire to be closer to nature — just as warming temperatures are contributing to longer and more destructive wildfires.
Wood smoke contains some of the same toxic chemicals that city pollution does. While humans have long been around fire, they generally inhale it in small doses over cooking or heat fires. Humans have not, however, evolved to handle prolonged inhalation of caustic air from something like the Paradise blaze, Dr. Balmes said.
In other words as deadly wildfires become more frequent in the US, so will killer clouds of smoke, smog, and ash from fires burning hundreds of thousands of acres and causing billions of dollars in damage to both property and people's health.
The larger problem right now is that there's a very good chance that the final death toll from these fires will be over a thousand, we're talking about people who have been missing for over a week now. Unless they've been gathering someplace that firefighters and rescue personnel haven't been able to reach, odds are both slim and grim.
The coverage of this has been minimal to say the least, the assumed death toll would put this just behind Katrina in the list of deadliest US natural disasters, and Trump is puttering around saying this is California's fault.
This is terrible and it will only get worse.