Nearly a week after the Camp Fire devastated an entire town, destroying 7,600 homes and at least 260 commercial properties, officials say dozens of people are still missing—possibly hundreds — and many among them are senior citizens.
An updated list from the Butte County Sheriff’s Office shows that a significant number of the roughly 100 individuals identified as missing comprises people over 65.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, people aged 65 years and older make up about 25 per cent of the population of Paradise, the town of 27,000 people that was nearly completely destroyed last week as the Camp Fire overtook the area.
Butte County Sheriff and Coroner Kory Honea called the process of locating the dead “very, very difficult” and added that there’s an “unfortunate possibility” that human remains may be located even after people return to the area.
The Camp Fire began last week and spread quickly, burning at an alarming rate of up to 80 acres per minute and leaving little time to escape. Strong winds and very dry conditions led to a rapid spread of the flames, and traffic jams further complicated evacuation efforts.
Harold Taylor, a 72-year-old veteran and evacuee, told the Associated Press that he attempted to convince a neighbour to leave the area with him but that the neighbour refused. Taylor said he and others “didn’t have 10 minutes to get out of there”, and he doesn’t know what happened to the individual.
Some residents in the area have raised concerns that warnings about evacuations were not sufficient. Christina Taft, another evacuee who told NBC News that her 67-year-old mother was missing, said officials “definitely didn’t do enough” to notify those in the area of the severity of the fire.
In one harrowing account of how residents narrowly escaped the Camp Fire’s flames, more than a dozen people were forced into in the nearby Concow Reservoir after becoming walled off by the inferno, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. At least one of the individuals identified was 90 years old.
Craig Clements, director of the Fire Weather Research Laboratory at San José State University, was on site at the Camp Fire on Thursday and Friday and told Gizmodo by email on Sunday that strong winds and other conditions were “scary given the extremely dry fuels.”
“These fires are wind-driven and are spreading fast,” he said. “The Camp Fire spread down a canyon quickly and overcame the town of Paradise. These winds are down-slope wind storms and are very dangerous when fuels are so dry.”
As of Wednesday, the fire was still only 35 per cent contained, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and had burned more than 135,000 acres. Honea said that more than 100 National Guard troops would help in the ongoing effort to locate human remains.