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In Paradise, on the search for life after Camp Fire

As rescue teams scoured ashes for signs of life after a wildfire destroyed the town of Paradise in northern California, the death toll rose to at least 23. And with hundreds still missing, it may become the deadliest fire in the state’s history. Meanwhile, the Woolsey fire near Los Angeles has killed at least two. Julia Sulek from the Bay Area News Group is in Paradise and joins Hari Sreenivasan.

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  • HARI SREENIVSAN:

    Good evening. Thanks for joining us. Two deadly wildfires continue to burn in California where thousands of firefighters are working to save homes and lives. In Northern California, the death toll from the so-called Camp Fire has climbed to 23 as officials continue to search for more than a hundred people who remain unaccounted for. The fire in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, north of Sacramento, has burned 109,000 acres and is 25 percent contained. More than 6,700 structures have been destroyed, mostly residential homes, making it the most destructive in California history. About 500 miles to the south, the Woolsey fire continues to threaten areas around Los Angeles. About 250,000 people have been evacuated and the fire is being blamed for at least two deaths there. Fire officials say the blaze is 10 percent contained. The Santa Ana winds picked up today creating tougher conditions for firefighters. The winds are expected to remain through Tuesday.

    For more I'm joined via Skype by Julia Sulek from the Bay Area News Group. She's in Paradise, a town of 2,7000 people that's been decimated by the so-called Camp Fire. Julia, describe what you're standing in, what's left of this town?

  • JULIA SULEK:

    Wow it's so grim I have to tell you just driving through. How much carnage it's just it's amazing. I'm standing in the wreckage of what appears to be a church. There's just nothing left. What is so astounding about Paradise, there still are some buildings, the businesses is on the main drag of town, there are a few but it's all the residences, 90 percent of the homes, in this place, are gone.

  • HARI SREENIVSAN:

    You chronicled some of the stories of people that were trying to get out. What's the scene that they describe?

  • JULIA SULEK:

    Well, what really got me was these abandoned cars and it's just so apocalyptic. It's like a scene from The Walking Dead or something and you just wonder, I couldn't help but imagine what it must have been like to be sitting in one of these cars and no way out. And unfortunately, the scariest thing of all is that some people actually perished in their vehicles but the ones who got out were just amazing. This one couple, they were in bumper to bumper. They said we'd rather die living together than in separate cars. You know, they went to the edge of a cliff and they slid down on their rear ends and deer and turkeys were coming down with them and they moored at a creek and finally another five miles to safety. I mean, the stories are just epic and stories of heroism. I spoke with a school bus driver who was stranded with a 7-year-old autistic boy for hours. Ultimately they got out safely too but it's just terrifying for people out here.

  • HARI SREENIVSAN:

    Is this area now safe? Are people allowed to go back in yet?

  • JULIA SULEK:

    No. There are so many downed power lines, a lot of PG&E crews are here. We're driving, of course, we're able to go in with press passes. It's just very hazardous.

  • HARI SREENIVSAN:

    What is the plan there for this town? I mean the evacuees — everybody from that town and the surrounding towns are now in elsewhere?

  • JULIA SULEK:

    I spoke with the mayor of Paradise last night and I said, what is it like to be the mayor of a town where nothing's left? And she said, you know, hey the Ace Hardware is still there and we have one grocery store — two are gone but one is there. So of course, she's looking on the bright side. I was at a meeting last night when one of the community members said should I go back? Should I return? And she said it's really up to you.

  • HARI SREENIVSAN:

    Julia Sulek in the Bay Area News Group joining us via Skype from Paradise, California. Thanks so much for joining us.

  • JULIA SULEK:

    You're welcome.

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