Nov 25 (Reuters) - The number of people still missing after a northern California wildfire obliterated the mountain town of Paradise, dropped to 249 on Sunday, the Butte County Sheriff's Office said.
The number was revised down from 475 as people who were believed missing were found in shelters, staying in hotels or with friends, officials said, adding that many did not know they were on the list.
The search for the dead will continue at first light Sunday, in the ash and rubble of the so-called Camp Fire that started on Nov. 8 and killed at least 85 people and destroyed nearly 14,000 homes, in and around Paradise, California, about 175 miles (280 km) northeast of San Francisco.
The death toll was increased late Saturday night by one, according to the Butte County Sheriff's Office.
Searchers will have a few more days of dry weather, but starting late Tuesday, another 2-5 inches of rain is expected to drop on the Sierra Nevada foothills through next Sunday, hampering the searchers work and renewing fears of flash floods and mudslides, forecasters said.
RELATED: Harrowing images from California's Camp Fire
Harrowing images from California's Camp Fire
Harrowing images from California's Camp Fire
The Camp Fire charred 200 square miles in Northern California from Thursday, November 8, through Tuesday, November 13, 2018. (Image via Business Insider/Cal Fire)
At 9:23 a.m. Thursday, the Butte County Sheriff's Office sent out frantic tweets — first warning — then ordering residents to get out of the way of the flames. "What pisses me off is I don’t think they told everybody soon enough," resident Kim Benn said.
"I just kept watering the barn and watering any areas in the barn that caught on fire," she said. "It's a dangerous situation. I remember my son saying, 'Hey! There's no firefighters. We're on our own here.' I'm like, 'Yeah.' We were definitely on our own."
The blaze was so hot it melted metal. Allyn Pierce, a registered nurse, told The New York Times that he was in his truck sitting in traffic as a wall of fire approached. The registered nurse recorded a goodbye message to his family members, but a bulldozer cleared the way for him to escape just in time.
Instead of getting far away from Paradise, however, Pierce drove to help patients at the local hospital, where he manages the intensive care unit. "It’s completely traumatic," Pierce said about being trapped in his truck. "When I close my eyes at night, I see fire."
Erin McLaughlin, who lives a few miles north of Paradise, told the Times that she left her home Thursday morning with her 81-year-old neighbor, Elisabeth Mesones. The two got stuck in traffic outside Paradise and escaped their cars on foot after hearing propane-tank explosions nearby.
McLaughlin, Mesones, and roughly 75 other motorists gathered in the parking lot of a Chinese restaurant. "Everything was on fire all around you," McLaughlin said. "It was the most scary thing I’ve ever seen." The group escaped after six hours, but the restaurant later burned down.
Teresa Moniz was in the town of Magalia last Thursday when her husband, Albert Moniz, called to say flames were approaching their home in Paradise. Albert Moniz, who is disabled and does not own a cell phone, later called from a friend's house, but his wife has not heard from him since.
Wildfires are a natural part of California's ecosystems, but they have recently gotten stronger and caused more destruction as the state sees less rain and higher temperatures. Dry, hot conditions, which are partially caused by climate change, are becoming the new normal.
To make the situation worse, native plants such as Chaparral, which is a great fire buffer, have been cut down, and more non-native grasses and weeds have moved in, which are great fuel for fires. "Instead of trying to make the fires adapt to us, we have to create communities and live in situations where we allow the fires to burn around us, not through us," Rich Halsey from the California Chaparral Institute said.
"The fear is that the rain will drop in intense bursts," Brian Hurley, a meteorologist with the federal Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland, said early Sunday.
"All the vegetation has burned away, and that's a dangerous recipe for mudslides," Hurley said.
Last week, 2-3 inches (5-8 cm) of rain fell there and turned ash from the thousands of destroyed homes into slurry, complicating the work of finding bodies reduced to bone fragments.
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea has warned that remains of some victims may never be found. The town of Paradise was a popular destination for retirees, with people aged 65 or older accounting for a quarter of its 27,000 residents. Most of the victims of the fire identified so far were of retirement age.
With help from the recent rain, firefighters have contained 98 percent of the blaze, which torched 154,000 acres (62,000 hectares) - an area five times the size of San Francisco, officials said.
Investigators have yet to determine the cause of the fire.
Thousands of people forced to flee Paradise spent Thanksgiving in warehouses in the nearby city of Chico, or with friends or relatives in nearby towns. (Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; additional reporting by Andrew Hay in New Mexico, Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles and Gabriella Borter in New York; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)