On the evening before Thanksgiving, some Southern California residents got something they haven't had for awhile: a little good news. The state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection announced that the Woolsey Fire has now been fully contained.
The blaze killed at least three people and destroyed some 1,500 structures across Los Angeles and Ventura counties before firefighters managed to rein it in. Residents of Malibu and other battered areas are beginning to return home — if their homes still stand — for a bittersweet holiday.
As mixed as their blessings may be, those residents find themselves in a better situation than their counterparts in Northern California, where the Camp Fire continues to rage and hundreds are still missing. At least 83 people have been confirmed dead — and with 563 still unaccounted for, that death toll threatens to climb higher as authorities identify more victims' remains.
"In my experience being a firefighter for 33 years, I have never seen such complete devastation," retired firefighter Chris Blair told WBUR's Here & Now. Blair traveled from Santa Barbara to join the hundreds of volunteers combing through the ruins of Paradise, Calif., for victims' remains.
"There were numerous vehicles that were burned out, and the houses — there were few walls or anything standing above the ground," he added. "Mobile homes were nothing but a metal frame."
Beginning on Wednesday, rain swept through Butte County, helping firefighters to bring the Camp Fire under 90 percent containment — but also complicating authorities' recovery efforts by raising the risk of mudslides in an environment singed clean of vegetation.
That rain has also upped the urgency to get local evacuees into indoor shelters. Outside a Walmart in the nearby town of Chico, where dozens of fire victims set up tents, local media report that volunteers are trying to get survivors back into dry areas.
The precipitation could cause an "urgent health and safety concern for those who are camping on the open field as this is a water runoff/water table area," warned a sign posted in the area, according to the Chico Enterprise-Record.
Jeff Evans, a 59-year-old resident of Concow, near Paradise, never had the chance to leave his home. He told NPR's Morning Edition that while he and his elderly parents had been packing up to leave, his father stepped out of the house to take a better look at the situation.
"When he came back a minute or two later, he said there's just no possible way that we are leaving to go anywhere," Evans recalls. "There's no way you're going to drive through flames like that."
So, with the help of some neighbors, his family made an improvised fire line, cutting down the vegetation around the house to impede the blaze's progress. It was only hours later, when the fire's fury had subsided some, that Evans and his family realized they would come out of the crisis alive.
Eventually Evans felt safe enough to take a ride up the road and look around — and there, in a cluster of abandoned cars, he said managed to rescue others trapped in the fire.
"I looked into the one of the windows of one of the vehicles, and there's two puppies in the car. So I grabbed the dogs, I put them in my truck, I went to the next vehicle — and it's like every vehicle had one or two dogs. One of them had six dogs," Evans says. "I just I can't — I don't know. I feel so fortunate that I drove up the road at that moment, or those dogs would have died, I'm fairly confident."
Now he and his family — and all the newfound dogs — are spending Thanksgiving together in a quiet, bleak landscape, where most houses except theirs are in smoldering ruin.
Evan says under the circumstances, he's thankful for what he's got.
"I know Thanksgiving is a big deal, but my conditions of life have changed. And this is where I am, and that's what I have available to me," he says. "So I'm just going to keep doing what I do."
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