88 Killed, 203 Still Missing After Butte County Camp Fire: Sheriff

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said costs associated with wildfire will likely be in the billions

A Northern California sheriff says no additional remains were found Monday, but the wildfire’s death toll rose to 88 after investigators determined human remains that had been assigned to two people actually belong to three.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said Monday that 203 names remain on the list of those unaccounted for after the Camp Fire swept through the rural area 140 miles north of San Francisco.

Earlier in the day, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said costs associated with wildfire will likely be in the billions. Zinke, who was back in the town of Paradise on Monday, said he has never witnessed such devastation.

"There's a lot of things I'd rather spend this federal money on rather than repairing damage of things that have been destroyed," he said. Zinke nodded to other public services, such as improving visitor experiences at Yosemite National Park or thinning forests.

The U.S. government has distributed more than $20 million in assistance for people displaced by the catastrophic wildfire in Northern California, a Federal Emergency Management Agency official said Monday as hundreds of searchers kept looking for more human remains.

The massive wildfire that destroyed nearly 14,000 homes in the town of Paradise and surrounding communities was fully contained over the weekend after igniting more than two weeks ago.

FEMA spokesman Frank Mansell told The Associated Press that $15.5 million has been spent on housing assistance, including vouchers for hotel rooms. During an interview in the city of Chico, he said disaster response is in an early phase but many people will eventually get longer-term housing in trailers or apartments.

FEMA also has distributed $5 million to help with other needs, including funeral expenses, he said.

About 17,000 people have registered with the federal disaster agency, which will look at insurance coverage, assets and other factors to determine how much assistance they are eligible for, Mansell said.

Meanwhile, the list of people who are unaccounted for has dropped from a high of 1,300 to the "high 200s" Monday, Honea said. He said the number of volunteers searching for the missing and dead has been reduced to about 200 Monday from 500 Sunday after many of those reported missing were found over the weekend.

"We made great progress," Honea said.

Anthropologists are sifting through bone fragments to help coroners identify the remains, he said, and "the remains that we are now recovering are now remains that were almost completely consumed by the fire."

Though he has declined to characterize how much of the area has been searched, Honea said that highly populated areas and places that were identified as possibly having deceased people have been fully searched and search teams are now spreading out into less dense areas of devastation.

Zinke said building restrictions in fire-prone areas should be part of a discussion about protections from wildfires.

"When we rebuild, having a frank discussion whether it's appropriate to rebuild every place is an important part of the equation," he told The Associated Press. He did not say Paradise should avoid rebuilding, noting the town has expanded evacuation routes and would be safer with more aggressive efforts to cut thin forests and built vegetation-free fire breaks that could stop advancing flames.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue joined Zinke on a tour of Paradise, which was decimated by the fire that ignited in the parched Sierra Nevada foothills Nov. 8 and quickly spread across 240 square miles (620 square kilometers).

Perdue suggested donating timber from the nearby Plumas National Forest to rebuild Paradise.

The firefight got a boost last week from the first significant storm to hit California this year, which dropped several inches of rain over the burn area without causing significant mudslides.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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