Rain helps douse California fire but slows search crews

PARADISE, Calif. (AP) — A deadly wildfire is nearly contained thanks to several days of rain in Northern California. But search crews are still completing the meticulous task of combing through ash and debris that are now damp and muddy.

Searchers planned to resume their grim task Saturday after working on-and-off the day before because of a downpour over Paradise, California. Some are now looking through destroyed neighborhoods for a second time as hundreds of people remain unaccounted for. They're searching for telltale fragments or bone or anything that looks like a pile of cremated ashes.

Search teams on Friday wore yellow rain slickers and hard hats to protect against falling branches as they quietly looked for clues that may indicate someone couldn't get out, such as a car in the driveway or a wheelchair ramp. They looked not only for bone but anything that could be a pile of cremated ashes. Craig Covey, who led a team out of Southern California's Orange County, temporarily pulled his 30-member team off the search as heavy rain and wind knocked down trees and caused dangerous conditions.

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Animals impacted by deadly wildfires in California
MALIBU, CA - NOVEMBER 09: Llamas are tied to a lifeguard stand on the beach in Malibu as the Woolsey Fire comes down the hill Friday. (Photo by Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Cathy Fallon pets her dog Shiloh at their home Friday, Nov. 9, 2018, in Paradise, Calif. Shiloh was burned when a wildfire scorched the property, burning down Fallon's home. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Horses are tied to lifeguard booths on the beach in Malibu, Calif., Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018. Wildfires are burning in both Southern and Northern California. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Equine veterinarian Jesse Jellison carries an injured goose to a waiting transport during the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S. November 10, 2018. REUTERS/Stephen Lam
THOUSAND OAKS, CA - NOVEMBER 09: Horses are spooked as the Woolsey Fire moves through the property on Cornell Road near Paramount Ranch on November 9, 2018 inAgoura Hills, California. About 75,000 homes have been evacuated in Los Angeles and Ventura counties due to two fires in the region. (Photo by Matthew Simmons/Getty Images)
Dogs roam burned out neighborhoods as the Camp fire tears through Paradise, north of Sacramento, California on November 08, 2018. - More than one hundred homes, a hospital, a Safeway store and scores of other structures have burned in the area and the fire shows no signs of slowing. (Photo by Josh Edelson / AFP) (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
MALIBU, CA - NOVEMBER 09: Horses are tied to a pole on the beach in Malibu as the Woolsey Fire comes down the hill Friday. (Photo by Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
MALIBU, CA - NOVEMBER 09: Llamas evacuated from the Woolsey Fire are tied to a lifeguard tower at Zuma Beach in Malibu on Friday, Nov. 9, 2018. (Photo by Scott Varley/Digital First Media/Torrance Daily Breeze via Getty Images)
PARADISE, CA - NOVEMBER 09: Rocklin police officers Randy Law grazes a horse he rescued in Paradise, Calif., Friday, November 9, 2018. (Karl Mondon/Digital First Media/The Mercury News via Getty Images)
Jimmy Clements, who stayed at his home as the Camp Fire raged through Paradise, Calif., pets his dog Blue, Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018. Clements, whose home stands among destroyed residences, said he built an FM radio out of a potato and wire to keep up with news about the fire. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Cathy Fallon sits near her dog Shiloh, a 2-year-old golden retriever, whose face was burned in the fire in Paradise, Calif. Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018. Shiloh needs veterinarian treatment. But she can't leave her property because authorities won't allow her to return to Paradise, since the entire town is still under an evacuation order. Fallon and Shiloh are spending nights in this horse trailer because the family home burned. (AP Photo/Paul Elias)
Marty Cable is one of dozens of horse owners who evacuated her home in Encinal Canyon to bring their animals to an evacuation area at Zuma Beach in Malibu, Calif., Friday, Nov. 9, 2018. Known as the Woolsey fire, it has consumed thousands of acres and destroyed multiple homes. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
Goats are cared for at The Pierce College Equine Center where evacuees are bringing their large animals after being evacuated from the wildfire in the Woodland Hills section of Los Angeles on Friday, Nov. 9, 2018. A wind-driven wildfire raged through Southern California communities on Friday, burning homes and forcing thousands of people to flee as it relentlessly pushed toward tony Malibu and the Pacific Ocean. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)
Teresa Merritt, left helps her sister Mary Lou Miller with her dogs after being evacuated at The Pierce College Equine Center where evacuees are bringing their large and small animals in the Woodland Hills section of Los Angeles on Friday, Nov. 9, 2018. A wind-driven wildfire raged through Southern California communities on Friday, burning homes and forcing thousands of people to flee as it relentlessly pushed toward Malibu and the Pacific Ocean. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)
Wildfire evacuee Eva Loeffler sits with her 20 year-old pony Mini at the Pierce College Equine Center where evacuees are bringing their large and small animals in the Woodland Hills section of Los Angeles on Friday, Nov. 9, 2018. A wind-driven wildfire raged through Southern California communities on Friday, burning homes and forcing thousands of people to flee as it relentlessly pushed toward Malibu and the Pacific Ocean. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)
PARADISE, CA - NOVEMBER 11: A dog named Rockey stands on the fence in front of the home of Jimmy Clements that survived the Camp Fire on November 11, 2018 in Paradise, California. Fueled by high winds and low humidity the Camp Fire ripped through the town of Paradise charring over 105,000 acres, killed 23 people and has destroyed over 6,700 homes and businesses. The fire is currently at 25 percent containment. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Yolo County Sheriff's Office Animal Services Officer Tim Share leads a rescued horse towards a trailer during the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S. November 10, 2018. REUTERS/Stephen Lam
A donkey is seen tied to a road sign during the Camp Fire near Big Bend, California, U.S. November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Stephen Lam
A group of deers walk through properties destroyed by the the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S. November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Stephen Lam
Local residents bring their horses to Zuma Beach and away from the Woolsey Fire in Malibu, California, U.S. November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Gene Blevins
MALIBU, CA - NOVEMBER 09: Llamas evacuated from the Woolsey Fire are tied to a lifeguard tower at Zuma beach in Malibu on Friday, Nov. 9, 2018. (Photo by Scott Varley/Digital First Media/Torrance Daily Breeze via Getty Images)
People lead horses and ponies down Pacific Coast Highway to an evacuation area at Zuma Beach in the Point Dume area of Malibu, Calif., Friday, Nov. 9, 2018. Known as the Woolsey Fire, it has consumed tens of thousands of acres and destroyed multiple homes. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
MALIBU, CA - NOVEMBER 09: Horses are yied to a pole on the beach in Malibu as the Woolsey Fire comes down the hill Friday. (Photo by Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Nine year-old pit bull Tone, which suffers from burns on its paws during the Camp Fire, rests in the parking lot of Neighbourhood Church of Chico, in Chico, California, U.S. November 11, 2018. REUTERS/Stephen Lam
Veterinarian Dawn Alves tends to a dog named Fatty who received burns on its eyes and chin during the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S. November 11, 2018. REUTERS/Stephen Lam
Evacuee Brian Etter and dog Tone, who walked on foot to escape the Camp Fire, rest in the parking lot of Neighborhood Church of Chico, in Chico, California, U.S., November 11, 2018. REUTERS/Stephen Lam
THOUSAND OAKS, CA - NOVEMBER 09: Horses are spooked as the Woolsey Fire moves through the property on Cornell Road near Paramount Ranch on November 9, 2018 inAgoura Hills, California. About 75,000 homes have been evacuated in Los Angeles and Ventura counties due to two fires in the region. (Photo by Matthew Simmons/Getty Images)
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The nation's deadliest wildfire in the past century has killed at least 84 people, and 475 are still unaccounted for. Despite the inclement weather, more than 800 volunteers searched for remains on Thanksgiving and again Friday, two weeks after flames swept through the Sierra Nevada foothills, authorities said.

While rain complicated the search, it also helped nearly extinguish the blaze, said Josh Bischof, operations chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Once the rain clears, state officials will be able to determine if the blaze is fully out, he said.

The Camp Fire ignited Nov. 8 and has destroyed nearly 19,000 buildings, most of them homes. That's more than the worst eight fires in California's history combined, the agency said, with thousands of people displaced.

While the rain made everybody colder and wetter, they kept the mission in mind, said Chris Stevens, who wore five layers of clothing to keep warm.

"It doesn't change the spirits of the guys working," he said. "Everyone here is super committed to helping the folks here."

The volunteers interrupted by rain Friday found other ways to help.

Covey and several team members took two big brown bags full of lunch to 64-year-old Stewart Nugent, who stayed in his home and fought off flames with a garden house, a sprinkler and a shovel. He has been there for two weeks with his cat, Larry.

The first winter storm to hit California has dropped 2 to 4 inches of rain over the burn area since it began Wednesday, said Craig Shoemaker with the National Weather Service in Sacramento.

The weather service issued a warning for possible flash flooding and debris flows from areas scarred by major fires in Northern California, including the areas burned in Paradise.

Shoemaker said Friday afternoon that about a quarter-inch of rain was falling per hour, not enough to cause serious problems. An inch of rain per hour would be more difficult, he said.

The rain was expected to subside by midnight, followed by light showers Saturday, he said.

In Southern California, more residents were allowed to return to areas that were evacuated because of the 151-square-mile (391-square-kilometer) Woolsey Fire as crews worked to repair power, telephone and gas utilities.

About 1,100 residents were still under evacuation orders in Malibu and unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County, down from 250,000 at the height of the fire.

The fire erupted just west of Los Angeles amid strong winds on Nov. 8 and burned through suburban communities and wilderness parklands to the ocean, leaving vast areas of blackened earth and many homes in ashes. Three people were found dead, and 1,643 structures, most of them homes, were destroyed, officials said.

In Northern California, the workers on the ground tried to keep their minds on the task at hand rather than the tragedy of the situation.

"The guys will never say it's hard," said David Kang, a member of the search team from Orange County. "But it is."

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Associated Press journalists Olga Rodriguez and Daisy Nguyen in San Francisco and John Antczak in Los Angeles contributed.

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