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Camp Fire Death Toll Soars To 23; Firefighters Slow Firestorm's Advance

CHICO (CBS SF/AP) -- The death toll from the devastating Camp Fire climbed to 23 Saturday as 14 more victims were located in the debris of what was once the town of Paradise.

Four coroner teams worked through the day, searching through the wreckage left behind by the devastating firestorm to recover bodies and human remains. Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said an additional search and rescue team would join the effort on Sunday.

The sheriff's office still has 110 outstanding reports of missing people, Honea said. Sheriff's deputies have been able to locate 70 previously missing people in shelters.

In some cases, investigators have only been able to recover bones and bone fragments, Honea said. He encouraged family members of the missing to submit DNA samples that could be compared with remains that are recovered.

"This weighs heavy on all of us," Honea said. "Myself and especially those staff members who are out there doing what is important work but certainly difficult work."

Camp Fire in Butte County Locator
Camp Fire in Butte County

Meanwhile, the blaze grew by just 5,000 acres during the day Saturday and now has charred 105,000 acres -- 164 square miles -- about twice the size of Oakland. Firefighters took advantage of calming winds to expand the containment of the blaze to 20 percent.

But red flag conditions are forecasted to return late Saturday night with 50 mph gusts. While firefighters said there was no imminent danger to the city of Oroville, residents were warned to be on high alert and ready to evacuate in case the direction of the fire changed.

Cal Fire said the firestorm has already destroyed at least 6,713 structures; of those 6,453 are homes.

In an early-morning posting on Twitter, President Donald Trump blamed the state's forestry officials for the blaze.

San Francisco-based utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric finds itself the focus of the early stages of an investigation into a cause of the fire.

California Wildfires - PG&E Power Transmission
Wildfire smoke from the Camp Fire in Butte County swirls around power transmission lines in Big Bend, Calif., Nov. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

PG&E officials said the utility experienced problem on transmission line minutes before the massive Butte County wildfire erupted.

An electric safety incident was reported by PG&E at about 6:15 a.m. Thursday near Pulga Road in Butte County, near where the Camp Fire started.

In the summary of the incident, it states, PG&E experienced an outage on the Caribou-Palermo 115 kV transmission line in Butte County.

In the devastated neighborhoods in Paradise, residents and officials wrestled with the near total destruction.

Overnight, two men were detained on the suspicion of looting. Authorities said both men were wearing clothing similar to apparel worn by U.S. Forest Service employees. Butte County Sheriff Korey Honea has promised looters would face harsh prosecution.

Amid the ruins, retired Chico firefighter Dan McCard stood, trying to comprehend the worst fire damage he has ever seen.

He had waged his own personal battle with the flames, saving his girlfriend's home and that of a couple neighbors.

"High winds, a lot of fire," he said of the terrifying scene on Thursday as the inferno roared through the town of some 26,000. "I was doing good until I ran out of water - saved a couple of houses. Once the water ran out, it just didn't go so well."

"I've seen a lot of fire, but this is the worst Ive ever seen," he continued. "The winds were so high. It was incredible. It was like hurricane force winds all night long."


Paradise resident Patrick Knuthson wasn't as lucky. His neighborhood was ravaged by the wall of flames.

"Down my street, there's probably, if I had to guess, 22 houses and there's two that are left," he said. "And the fire burned from one house, to the next house, to the next house until they were pretty much all gone."

As he stood with his dog, some of the debris was still smoldering.

"Things are still burning like the inside of that truck's got bee boxes in it," he said. "My uncle does bees. Those will sit there and burn for a while inside that truck. But, yeah, definitely devastating."

And then he recalled the once bucolic lifestyle enjoyed by the local residents.

"It was beautiful, with lots of trees," he said. "We used to have four seasons, you'd get all the seasons here. So you'd get the spring, the fall, the winter. We used to get snow every January when I was a kid. We just don't get as much as we used to. But it's beautiful here."

Paradise Devastated in Camp Fire in Butte County
The burned remains of the Paradise Elementary school. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Indeed Friday was supposed to be filled with high school bands, cheerleaders and prep gridiron heroes. The heavy-favored Paradise High Bobcats were set to take on Red Bluff in a high school football playoff game.

But that game was cancelled.

"It was an extremely difficult and emotional decision, but Paradise has decided it is best not to continue with their season," North Coast athletic officials announced.

The fire also dimmed Friday Night Lights as far away as the San Francisco Bay Area. A plume of smoke and ash has created difficult breathing conditions forcing high school football officials to rescheduled several games from Friday night to Monday night.

The unhealthy air clogging Bay Area skies had triggered a local air quality alert and sent residents to stores in search of surgical face masks.

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