As thousands of firefighters continued to battle wildfires across California, Oregon, and Washington state, crews on Friday began the grim task of recovering the remains of those killed and searching for the missing.
In California, 20 people have so far been killed in what has turned into an unprecedented firestorm since igniting in mid-August, according to state fire officials. The death toll includes 10 people in the North Complex fire in Plumas, Butte, and Yuba counties, where more than 252,000 acres have been scorched. In all, more than 3 million acres have burned in the Golden State.
The fast-moving fires have forced thousands to flee their homes, sometimes separating families and friends.
Josiah Williams, a 16-year-old boy who was reported missing after the fire tore through Berry Creek in Northern California, was among those killed, his family told local media.
“He was alone, terrified, and ran for his life,” she said. “My son was a good, smart, caring young boy that died alone, and it kills me thinking about what he was going through.”
In Oregon, where wildfires have burned more than 1 million acres, Andrew Phelps, the state’s director of emergency management, warned that officials are “preparing for a mass fatality incident based on what we know and the numbers of structures that have been lost.”
In Marion County, 13-year-old Wyatt Tofte and his dog were found dead huddled together in a car. His 71-year-old grandmother, Peggy Mosso, also perished, a family spokesperson said.
"Our family is devastated by the loss of our kind-hearted 13-year-old Wyatt and his beloved grandmother Peggy in the Santiam Fire in the early morning of September 8th," the family said in a statement to CNN. "After a long search for Wyatt, he was found in a car with his dog on his lap, but unfortunately, was not able to escape the fire.”
Wyatt’s father, who aided in the search, survived. His mother is in critical condition with full-body burns, the family added.
In Washington state, more than a dozen large wildfires have torched more than 626,000 acres as of Friday morning, Gov. Jay Inslee told reporters. A 1-year-old boy is so far the state’s sole fire casualty; he died as he and his parents fled the Cold Springs fire in Okanogan County.
Sheriff’s officials said crews found the family along the bank of the Columbia River. Officials did not say how the boy died, but his parents had third-degree burns.
As authorities move into more areas destroyed by the flames, governors told the public to brace for death tolls to rise as tens of thousands of people in all three states remain under evacuation orders.
The Butte County Sheriff’s Office in California reported having received at least 124 reports for missing people. Of those, 16 people are still unaccounted for.
The all-volunteer search and rescue team in Butte County has teamed up with anthropologists from California State University, Chico, as they search the rubble of the more than 2,000 buildings that have been destroyed by the flames, the sheriff’s office said.
“Today was the first significant effort for search and rescue,” Dennis Schmidt, spokesperson for the rescue team, said, adding that crews were focusing their efforts on locating the 16 known missing people.
For the team, it is, unfortunately, a familiar task.
Just two years ago, the Butte County Search and Rescue Team was dispatched with anthropologists to find those killed by the deadly Camp fire, which killed 85 people and is so far the deadliest California fire ever recorded.
A fraction of the size, the North Complex fire is already considered the 10th deadliest fire in state history, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
“Certainly, the Camp fire was much bigger,” Schmidt said. “That doesn’t make this less painful.”
Like they did in the Camp fire, crews would focus on searching for those who have been reported missing, including the last places they were seen or their homes, Schmidt said. As more areas devastated by the fire become accessible, crews will move into those areas to expand their search.
As of Friday, nearly 30 fires are burning across California, leaving much of the West Coast in a cloudy haze.
Shrouded in thick smoke at a news conference Friday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom stood in an area scorched by the North Complex fire and blasted climate change skeptics.
“If you do not believe in science, I hope you believe in observed evidence,” Newsom said. “We’re in the midst of a climate emergency. We’re in the midst of a climate crisis.”
“California, folks, is America fast-forward,” he added. “What we’re experiencing right here is coming to communities all across the United States of America.”