BUTTE COUNTY — With the Camp Fire claiming the lives of a record 48 people so far and the search for the missing intensifying, details about the victims are beginning to emerge, putting a heartbreakingly human face to the stark numbers of a wildfire that has ravaged 130,000 acres.
When what is now the deadliest and most destructive fire in Californias history tore through Paradise on Thursday morning, all signs suggest Ernest Foss Jr., 63, attempted to escape from his home on Edgewood Lane. But the flames were too hot and too fast.
In his online writings, Foss described himself as a “bedbound” two-time cancer survivor who relied on an oxygen tank.
Just outside the charred remains of Fosss home Tuesday, remnants of the tank, a medical bed, a wheelchair and a walking cane were strewn amid the rubble.
Fosss daughter, Angela, wrote on Facebook that authorities told her family that her fathers body was found Saturday outside his home, alongside his dog Bernice. They believe that her father died just hours after the fire began.
Fosss stepson and caregiver, 36-year-old Andrew Burt, is still missing, she wrote, and a friend told KTVU that Burt acted “heroically” by staying with Foss as the fire bore down to try and help him escape.
Before he moved to Paradise, Foss was a longtime resident of the Bay Area. He lived in Menlo Park and Mill Valley before moving to San Francisco, where he attended high school in the 1970s at the defunct McAteer High School. The campus is now home to the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts.
According to Fosss Facebook page and family accounts, he was once a studio rock musician in San Francisco. Later in life, Foss attended Heald College at the schools now-shuttered Hayward campus and worked in IT for the college after graduating in 2003.
Foss frequently posted on social media and his personal websites about music and his life experiences under the names “Yoshi Matrix” and “Yoshis World.”
“Be glad in his freedom from pain and suffering, and smile at the thought of the loved ones who must have welcomed him into Heaven,” his daughter wrote.
Two other victims — Jesus Fernandez of Concow and Carl Wiley of Magalia — have also been publicly identified.
In the coming days and weeks, more of the sons and daughters, mothers and fathers who perished in the blaze will be identified. Dozens of people are still missing. Each day, recovery workers and cadaver dogs sifting through ashes find new remains.
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Workers from CSU Chicos anthropology department are on hand to assist with identifying bone fragments, and state forensic experts are helping evaluate DNA samples. But it could be weeks before their loved ones have answers.
And still, at 35 percent containment, the fire rages on, with the area burned — 130,000 acres — already more than four times the size of San Francisco.
In addition to the lives lost, some 8,817 structures are gone. Several firefighters have suffered burns, including a fire captain and firefighter who were injured when a propane tank exploded.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation, but PG&E reported problems with a power line in the area, and on Tuesday a lawsuit was filed against the utility company alleging its failure to maintain equipment sparked the fire.
In Paradise on Tuesday, a line of about half a dozen American flags sprang up along each side of Skyway downtown, pretty much the only thing still standing in the town of some 26,000.
With most residents evacuated, the streets were filled with workers, from PG&E to tree-removal crews. A thick haze of smoke still hung in the air, along with an eerie silence, save for the sound of an occasional falling tree. In some places, power lines dangled just six or seven feet above the ground.
When the fire burned through town, flames crept up to the edge of the local cemetery but then stopped suddenly. Green grass, speckled with fallen autumn leaves, still surrounded weathered headstones.
How you can help victims of Californias Camp Fire still burning near Paradise
With heavy smoke from the Butte County wildfire continuing to drift across the region, the Bay Area air quality remained unhealthy Tuesday and is expected to stay that way until at least Friday, according to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
Many local school districts say they are monitoring the air quality and amending their schedules accordingly.
Fremont Union School Districts Brian Killgore said schools in the district began the day by limiting students outdoor activities and keeping those with asthma and other respiratory issues indoors. With the air quality becoming increasingly worse, schools moved to a strictly indoor schedule and canceled all outdoor after-school sports and activities.
“We will re-evaluate in the morning and move on from there,” Killgore said. “We have parent-teacher conferences this week so most schools have early dismissal, which is helpful.”
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On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke — who blamed “environmental terrorist groups” for inhibiting the governments ability to manage forests and increasing the severity of the states fires during a radio interview with Breitbart News despite overwhelming evidence that climate change is a driving factor behind the fires — is expected to visit people affected by the Camp Fire with Gov. Jerry Brown.
Afterward, hell travel to Southern California, which is fighting their own infernos in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.
The Woolsey fire in Malibu has destroyed thousands of acres and destroyed homes of celebrities Miley Cyrus and Gerard Butler.
In many ways, the raging fires in Malibu and Paradise — two of the cities hardest hit by the states wildfires — provide a window into two very different Californias, a distinction that is sure to become clearer as residents begin to rebuild.
Malibu, in Los Angeles County, is a wealthy, well-educated city with median home values in the coastal community among the top two percent in the state — $1.8 million in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Paradise, in Butte County, is in the bottom third of median home values in the state. At $201,000, homes in the community are about half the California median income.
In the coming months, residents there will have to decide whether to rebuild or move elsewhere.
Even as they provided initial information about the process of returning to burned areas at a press conference Tuesday night, Butte County officials warned that the fire is still active, with record levels of dryness and fuel available to burn.
“The area remains quite ready for continued fire growth,” Cal Fire spokesman Jonathan Pangburn said. “We are not fully out of the woods yet.”
Staff writers Leonardo Castaneda and Khalida Sarwari and staff photographer Jane Tyska contributed to this report.