BUTTE COUNTY — The wildfire that started two weeks ago has torched an area in Butte County about the size of Chicago — nearly 240 square miles or 153,336 acres — and was 85 percent contained.
At least 83 people have died in the Camp Fire and officials said just over 560 people were still unaccounted for.
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Officials report nearly 18,500 structures have been destroyed, including more than 13,500 homes.
The National Weather Service issued a flash flood watch for Paradise and nearby communities and for those areas charred by wildfires earlier this year in Lake, Shasta, Trinity and Mendocino counties.
It was raining in Paradise Wednesday and firefighters could not be happier.
“This is going to help us complete our containment on the fire,” said Sacramento Fire Capt. Dave Lauchner.
Over the next few days, it’s expected the burn area of the Camp Fire could receive up to 6 inches of rain. Fire officials say that means the end of flames.
“This rain and the amount of rain is a fire season ending type rain,” said Cal Fire Battalion Chief Josh Bischof.
However, Lauchner said the rain and anticipated high wind gusts don’t come without dangers of their own for those still on the fire lines, which include falling trees and mudslides.
“It makes the ground really unstable for firefighters,” Lauchner told FOX40. “But we just keep our eyes open, make sure we’re in safe areas and watch out for each other.”
Meanwhile, many Camp Fire evacuees were still living in tents Wednesday.
“Because we have a dog,” said evacuee Anna Goodnight. “If you have an animal you can’t be in there and I wouldn’t want to be in there with that many people. I have no immune system.”
Goodnight was staying at the Butte County Fairgrounds in Gridley after learning her trailer had burned down from watching the news.
“President Trump was in the RV park, the same RV park where our coach was and it was burnt down,” she said.
But the donations coming in have been helping Goodnight to stay dry. A larger tent was brought in to go above the one she sleeps in.
She says many in the evacuation centers are grateful for all the help.
“I heard a guy down here saying he was a troublemaker but after this changed his life. So I’m hoping more positive things will happen out of this,” Goodnight said.
While the rain has been making life difficult for evacuees it has also created new challenges for first responders who are searching for human remains in Paradise.
“It’s pouring rain, which is great for the fire efforts, but making it a little mucky for our search and recovery teams,” Lauchner told FOX40.
Lauchner spoke about the teams that have the grim task of finding those Paradise residents who did not make it out.
“They’ve got a lot of teams in here searching,” he said. “They’ve brought urban search and rescue teams from across the state.”
On Monday, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea told FOX40 the rain will slow that process.
“It’s very fine ash in many of the areas that we’re searching,” Honea said. “You add water to that and now you’re going to have some mud, ash combination. I think that could be a little more difficult.”
However, Sheriff Honea says his office will continue heading that search through Thanksgiving unless conditions for those crews become unsafe.
“You know there a lot of trees up there that have been damaged by the fire,” Honea said. “There is some concern that as the rain comes in and the ground becomes saturated, there’s the possibility that any wind might push those over.”
Lauchner said firefighters also plan to remain on the lines until the job is done.
“We miss our families but we’re here for the community of Paradise and Concow and Magalia and they lost everything,” Lauchner said. “We have our houses still, they don’t. So we’re here for them and we’re going to be here for them until they get closure.”
Wednesday night, Honea told FOX40 those who think a family member of theirs may be among the deceased should come to the old Sears building in Chico, which is now home to the new FEMA center, to submit a DNA sample.
Honea also said he’s working to make sure families can identify loved ones from outside the area.
“We have reached out to other law enforcement agencies throughout the United States and provided them with information about how they can collect samples on our behalf if a loved one is in another location and send that to us,” Honea said.
Farther south, residents of communities charred by a Los Angeles-area fire stacked sandbags as they prepared for possible downpours that threaten to unleash runoff from hillsides left barren by flames.
Residents were mindful of a disaster that struck less than a year ago when a downpour on a fresh burn scar sent home-smashing debris flows through Montecito, killing 21 people and leaving two missing.
The 151-square-mile (391-square-kilometer) Woolsey Fire in the Los Angeles area was almost entirely contained after three people were killed and more than 1,600 structures destroyed.
Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made a surprise visit to weary firefighters on Wednesday, providing encouragement and helping serve breakfast.
“I wanted to let you know how much I appreciate all the work that you do,” he told firefighters during a brief speech.
Today in Paradise I saw devastation & I met people who have lost everything. But I also saw the spirit of America. I saw firefighters working 24 hours shifts & I saw volunteers serving food and helping in every way. This Thanksgiving, I thank them for showing what makes us great. pic.twitter.com/tIvaVBAGQE
— Arnold (@Schwarzenegger) November 21, 2018
The 71-year-old actor also slammed President Donald Trump for blaming the wildfire on poor forest management. He told firefighters, “you are tough to not only fight the fires, but you are tough to listen to all this crap.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.