California wildfires kill 31 people while utility companies are investigated

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A firefighter looks through a destroyed home in Paradise.

California state regulators are investigating two utility companies that reported incidents close in time and location to the start of the catastrophic Camp and Woolsey fires.

The causes of both fires are under investigation, according to Cal Fire. Preliminary incident reports submitted last week to the Safety and Enforcement Division of the California Public Utilities Commission provide a glimpse of conditions near the origins of the deadly blazes.

Both utilities say they are cooperating with state investigators.

Northern California’s Camp Fire is the most destructive fire in state history and one of the deadliest. It has killed 29 people and obliterated 6,453 homes and 260 other structures since it began Thursday morning near the town of Pulga.

PG&E’s report says it experienced a transmission line outage about 1 mile northeast of Pulga nearly 15 minutes before the Camp Fire began.

In Southern California, where the Woolsey Fire began Thursday afternoon in unincorporated Ventura County, SoCal Edison reported that a circuit relayed out of the Chatsworth Substation about two minutes before the blaze broke out. The incident location in the report appears to be the same as CalFire’s location for the fire’s origin. But it’s not clear how close they actually are to each other.

SoCal Edison’s report says, “at this point we have no indication from fire agency personnel that SCE utility facilities may have been involved in the start of the fire.”

A CPUC spokesperson said the agency will incorporate the incident reports into its staff investigations to assess the compliance of electric facilities with applicable rules and regulations in areas affected by the fires.

The reports come as the death toll rises statewide and fierce winds in Southern California continue to destroy homes and threaten more damage. The strongest Santa Ana winds in the south may bring gusts near hurricane force on Tuesday, CNN meteorologist Dave Hennen said.

Meanwhile, stories of nightmarish escapes are trickling out of the northern part of the state, where the Camp Fire virtually obliterated the town of Paradise, home to more than 26,000 people.

Paradise resident Susan Miller said she drove through flame-lined streets to escape with her daughter.

“I’ll have nightmares for the rest of my life,” she said.

Latest developments by the numbers

• Camp Fire: The largest of the three major blazes, the Camp Fire has scorched more than 113,000 acres across Northern California. As of Monday, it was about 25% contained, according to Cal Fire.

• Woolsey Fire: In Southern California, 57,000 structures are threatened by the Woolsey Fire. It has burned more than 91,000 acres and destroyed at least 370 structures. As of Monday, it was about 20% contained.

• The Hill Fire covered 4,531 acres and was 75% contained as of Monday.

Residents displaced with no end in sight

More than 300,000 people have been forced from their homes statewide. The majority of those residents are in Los Angeles County, where 170,000 were evacuated.

The evacuees included celebrities who lost their homes in Malibu as well as first responders who are setting aside their grief to save others.

Colusa Police Sgt. Jarrod Hughes told KTXL that his Paradise home had been destroyed in the blaze. But he still put on his uniform and returned to work once he got his son to safety.

“It’s my community, it’s where I grew up. It’s something I absolutely had to do,” Hughes said. “There was no question about it. It was get my family to safety so I can get in and get back up there and help everybody else.”

While much of Malibu lies in ruins, the city’s mayor pro tem, Jefferson ‘Zuma Jay’ Wagner, is recovering in a hospital after trying to save his home.

Adding to the chaos, two wildfires started Monday in Southern California’s Ventura County area.

The Rocky Peak Fire has burned about 20 acres, officials said. The nearby Lynn Fire has scorched about 15 acres. While structures are threatened, firefighters expect to contain that blaze soon, Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said.

Search for missing people continues

About 100 people are still unaccounted for, Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean said Monday.

Officials are hoping those people are safe elsewhere, perhaps at friends’ houses. But with wildfires still burning, the death toll could rise.

So far, 29 bodies have been recovered from homes and vehicles in or near Paradise. In Southern California, officials said two deaths in Malibu were related to the Woolsey Fire, bringing the statewide death toll to 31.

With countless homes burned to the ground, 10 coroner search-and-recovery teams are helping search for victims’ remains, Butte County Sheriff and Coroner Kory Honea said. The burnt condition of some bodies makes identification difficult, Konea said.

“In some cases, the only remains we are able to recover are bones or bone fragments,” Honea said.

“I know that members of the community who are missing loved ones are anxious, and I know that the news of us recovering bodies has to be disconcerting.”

Paradise Mayor Jody Jones is living in a motor home after losing her house to the Camp Fire. She has a roof and a bed but it won’t work for much longer, she said. “We’re thinking about where to go next.”

She, too, recalled fleeing her home in her car surrounded by flames so intense that at times she could feel the heat in her car. Trees and telephone poles were up in flames.

While the blaze no longer appears to pose a direct threat to Paradise, Jones is concerned about marshaling resources for cleanup and recovery so people can return to what’s left of their homes.

“My biggest concern is do we have the resources to clean up debris and get safety hazards out of the way so people can get to their property ASAP.”

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