Rain is set to bring fresh misery to California this week in the wake of the state’s deadliest ever wildfire, with fears of mudslides and flooding causing people to depart an impromptu tent city set up by evacuees.
Volunteers and displaced residents have started to pull out of an encampment that sprang up more than a week ago near the town of Paradise, in northern California, which has been reduced to a charred ruin by the Camp fire. On Monday, the death toll from the fire stood at 77, with 993 people still unaccounted for.
More than 50,000 people have had to flee the unexpectedly swift and fierce fire, the cause of which has yet to be established, with thousands sleeping in tents and cars at the makeshift camp next to a Walmart superstore in the town of Chico. Volunteers handed out everything from clothing to dog food but people are now being advised to relocate due to the threat of flooding.
Up to 4in (10cm) of rain is forecast to fall on the area, north of San Francisco, from Tuesday night, risking flooding of the camp, which is located at the bottom of a hill. The prospect of mudslides down hills stripped of vegetation is also causing concern in the area, as well as further south near Malibu, on the outskirts of Los Angeles, where a separate fire has caused three deaths.
Some evacuees said they were being forced out with nowhere suitable to go, with a private security firm hired by Walmart overseeing the departure of families. However, Walmart and local authorities have denied survivors are being forcibly removed. “Our priority is making sure we get fire-displaced residents into a place where they’ll be protected from the weather elements, where services are available,” said a spokesman from the Butte county authorities.
The Camp fire has burned through more than 150,000 acres after starting on 8 November. About two-thirds of the fire’s perimeter is now contained although authorities have said the fire will probably continue to burn for several more weeks.
The mass displacement of people has caused a severe shortage in rental properties in the surrounding area. Many erstwhile Paradise residents are retirees and low-income people and it is unclear how many will be able to return and rebuild what they have lost.
“My concern is that once you displace people they acclimatize to where they go and don’t come back,” said Doug Teeter, a Paradise resident and a member of the Butte county board of supervisors. “My grandfather built the house I lived in and it was burned down and I’m never going to have the same flood of childhood memories driving down that street. It’s all gone. The scale of disaster is completely unreal.”
Teeter and his family managed to pack a few belongings before fleeing Paradise, only to be caught in heavy traffic that caused them to abandon their vehicle and retreat to a nearby field where the fire passed them by.
“It was pitch black with dense smoke and I just thought, ‘Man I’m going to die,’” he said. “Stuff is just stuff at the end of the day. People lost their lives, people were scared. That is what saddens me so much.”
A small band of Paradise residents defied orders to evacuate and managed to defend their homes in the face of a fire whipped up by strong winds that was growing by around a football field in size every second.
Brad Weldon and his 89-year-old blind mother managed successfully to fight the flames for 24 hours armed only with a garden hose and buckets.
Having saved his home in Paradise, Weldon is not leaving what he now calls the “hell zone”.
“If they take me out of here, it will be at gunpoint,” Weldon said. “My mom says they’ll have to beat her ass, too. She ain’t going without a fight.”
People hundreds of miles from the Camp fire have been suffering its effects, with San Francisco experiencing some of the worst air quality in the world due to the wildfire smoke. Schools, sporting events and popular attractions have been shut down.
Donald Trump toured what remains of Paradise on Saturday, promising that the federal government would “take care of the people who have been so badly hurt”. But in a variety of ways, he riled many locals. The president also caused confusion by claiming that Finland manages its own forests by “raking and cleaning” them and downplayed the role that climate change has in causing forests to dry out and become more fire-prone.
The Associated Press contributed to this report