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Crews search for missing as California fires put thousands under orders to evacuate

Death toll rises from wildfires in the West
Death toll rises from raging wildfires in the West 03:25

Authorities in Northern California's Butte County on Thursday were looking for at least 12 people missing in a fire after three people were found dead in connection with the blaze on Wednesday, CBS SF Bay Area reports

The communities of Paradise and Concow, which were devastated by the devastating Camp Fire in 2018, are again being threatened — this time by the Bear Fire, which is part of the North Complex fires in Butte, Plumas and Yuba counties. 

About 20,000 people were under evacuation orders or warnings in the three counties, the Associated Press reported. 

The fire has exploded in the last 48 hours after burning for about three weeks, damaging or destroying hundreds of homes and other structures. As of Thursday morning, the North Complex fires had burned 252,163 acres — nearly 400 square miles. Containment was reported to be at 24%.

Destructive wildfires are also tearing through parts of Oregon and Washington state, while California this year has seen fires advance with unprecedented ferocity and speed. Some of the more than 24 major fires burning across the state are among the largest on record in California's recent history.

Fires have killed 12 people in California since the middle of August and destroyed more than 3,600 buildings. Smoke choked the skies on Wednesday, turning them shocking shades of red and orange.

Law enforcement and fire personnel wait on the Enterprise Bridge to enter an area encroached by fire during the Bear fire, part of the North Lightning Complex fires, in unincorporated Butte County, in Oroville, California on September 9, 2020.  JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images

On Wednesday, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea confirmed that three people were found dead and at least a dozen were missing in connection with the Bear Fire. He became emotional Wednesday night when announcing the news of the dead and missing. 

"This is the part of the presentation I've been dreading," said Honea. "It brings back memories of when I stood before you back in 2018 to talk about the people who lost their lives during the Camp Fire."

"Our situation over the last 36 hours has been dangerous, it's been deadly, its been extremely destructive," said Cal Fire Butte County Chief John Massina.

The charred remains of a vehicle is left on the side of a road during the Bear fire, part of the North Lightning Complex fires, in unincorporated Butte County, California on September 9, 2020. JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images

Among the latest damage reported was to the mountain community of Berry Creek which was nearly destroyed by flames. Nearby Camp Okizu — a long-time beloved Sierra retreat for children suffering from cancer — had significant damage.

A mother reported to CBS Sacramento she has not heard from her 16-year-old son Josiah Williams since the Bear Fire broke out. He was last seen in Berry Creek and his car was found unscathed. A search of hospitals has turned up nothing.

Jessica Williams said she is praying it's a miscommunication. "I can't get a hold of him, nobody can find him," she told CBS Sacramento

The Butte County Sheriff's Office said it received 85 missing person reports or requests for welfare checks in the area affected by the fire. So far, Honea said deputies have safely located 73 individuals.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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