Heavy rains expected to hinder search for victims of California wildfire


CHICO, Calif., Nov 21 (Reuters) - Heavy rains are forecast to begin on Wednesday in northern California, where they are likely to hinder search teams sifting through ash and rubble for the remains of victims of the deadliest wildfire in the state's history.

As much as six inches (15 cm) of rain was expected to fall over the next several days around the town of Paradise, a community of nearly 27,000 people, many of them retirees, that was largely obliterated by the Camp Fire. The fire claimed at least 81 lives and left hundreds missing.

The storm will help firefighters still battling the blaze, but will create more misery to the thousands of residents left homeless by the disaster, which destroyed thousands of homes in and around Paradise. Some of the homeless are camping rather than staying in emergency shelters.

"There are people still living in tents," Sacramento-based NWS meteorologist Eric Kurth said in a telephone interview. "That's certainly not going to be pleasant with the rain, and we might get some wind gusting up to 40 to 45 miles per hour (64 to 72 km per hour)."

Forecasters said the rains might also cause rivers of mud and debris to slide down flame-scorched slopes stripped of vegetation. The fire has burned across 151,000 acres (61,107 hectares) of the Sierra foothills north of San Francisco.

But because of mass evacuations since the fire erupted on Nov. 8, few people were believed to be in harm's way from any debris flow, according to National Weather Service (NWS) hydrologist Cindy Matthews.

She also said the volcanic soil and relatively shallow slopes found in the fire zone mean the ground is unlikely to become saturated enough for hillsides to give way to landslides.

However, authorities in Southern California warned residents in areas burned by another pair of wildfires in the foothills and mountains northwest of Los Angeles to be wary of mud-flow hazards from the same storm this week. One of those blazes, the Woolsey Fire, killed three people. MORE VICTIMS The remains of two more victims were found in a structure in Paradise on Tuesday, raising the death toll to 81. The Butte County Sheriff's Office has tentatively identified 56 of the victims whose remains have so far been recovered.

Meanwhile, the missing-persons list compiled by the sheriff's office was revised to 870 names late on Tuesday, from a high of more than 1,200 over the weekend.

The number has fluctuated widely over the past week as more individuals were reported missing and some initially unaccounted for either turned up alive or were confirmed dead.

The number of residents needing temporary shelter was unclear, but as many as 52,000 people were under evacuation orders at the height of the firestorm last week.

The Camp Fire incinerated some 12,600 homes in and around Paradise, mostly during the first night of the blaze. Gale-force winds drove flames through drought-parched scrub and trees into the town with little warning, forcing residents to flee for their lives.

Buffer lines have been carved around 75 percent of the fire's perimeter and full containment is expected by the end of the month, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Smoke from the fires has drifted across the country to the East Coast, where it left a brownish-orange haze that was credited with unusually vibrant sunsets on Monday.

The cause of the Camp and Woolsey fires is under investigation, but electric utilities reported equipment problems around the time both blazes broke out. (Additional reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee)