Officials provided a horrifying update about the wildfire ravaging northern California late Friday: At least 71 people are dead and over 1,000 are missing.
Authorities warned the death toll could rise further as “around 500 specialists and more than 20 cadaver dogs” search for human remains.
The 71 confirmed fatalities make this one of the deadliest disasters in recent U.S. history.
Deadliest U.S. disasters of the 21st century:
April 2011 tornadoes: 348
AA FL587: 265
Joplin tornado: 158
Station nightclub fire: 100
*Camp Fire: 71 (1,011 missing)
Las Vegas shooting: 59
— Eric Holthaus (@EricHolthaus) November 17, 2018
Officials said on Friday the Camp Fire is now 50 percent contained after burning around 150,000 acres, but forecasts of 50-mile per hour winds over the weekend could make firefighters’ work even more treacherous.
In addition to destroying entire towns, the historic wildfire is causing hazardous air conditions across the state. A public health emergency has been declared and many schools are closed as air quality in northern California was rated as the worst in the world on Thursday.
The online environmental news site Grist provided additional perspective about the dangerous Air Quality Index ratings.
Chico, Oroville, and Sacramento reported pollution levels in the “hazardous” category — the highest on the scale — topping parts of China and India and breaking records for the worst air quality in the area since record keeping began. It’s the equivalent of smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day.
The Bay Area is experiencing dangerous air quality despite being almost 200 miles from the Camp Fire.
The fast-moving flames have made it difficult to track who is actually unaccounted for. The current list of 1,011 people includes anyone who has been reported as missing. However, communication is spotty in the impacted areas, and the New York Times determined that a handful of people listed as unaccounted for are safe. The number of missing has risen dramatically in recent days.
The Camp Fire is one of three “unprecedented” late-season wildfires burning in California. The Woolsey Fire in southern California is now 78 percent contained after burning nearly 100,000 acres and destroying over 700 structures.
The Hill Fire, which is less than 10 miles away from the Woolsey Fire, is now 100 percent contained after burning nearly 5,000 acres.
The speed of the wildfires has been staggering. The Camp Fire was first spotted at 6:30 am last week, but was spreading 80 acres per minute by noon. The Hill Fire jumped Highway 101 just 12 minutes after it started.
As ThinkProgress has explained, climate change makes wildfires more intense.
With hotter temperatures and persisting, dryer conditions, there’s more fuel for the fire — making them bigger and more expensive to fight. Adding strong winds to this situation simply helps to fan the flames ever higher.
“We’re not saying that climate change is literally causing the events to occur. What we can conclude with a great deal of confidence now is that climate change is making these events more extreme,” said climate scientist Michael Mann.