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By Tim Stelloh
Thousands of firefighters across California were trying to hold the line on a pair of deadly wildfires as powerful winds picked back up on Sunday, roaring across a state that had seen a slight reprieve overnight.
North of Sacramento, the Camp Fire — believed to be the most destructive in state history — had killed 23 people, burned more than 6,000 homes and scorched 109,000 acres, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire.
In Southern California, the Woolsey Fire was burning from Thousand Oaks, which was still reeling from a mass shooting that left 12 people dead last week, to the wealthy coastal enclave of Malibu. The fire has killed two people, threatened nearly 60,000 structures and forced the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of residents, officials said.
“This week, California experienced the most destructive fires that we’ve seen in its history,” Scott Jalbert, a Cal Fire unit chief, said Sunday morning.
The hot, dry Santa Ana winds — which blow toward the Southern California coast from the desert, fanning wildfires — have “us very concerned,” Jalbert added.
Much of the state remained under a red flag warning, which is the forecast used by the National Weather Service to indicate ideal wildland fire conditions. In Southern California, Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said Sunday that winds as powerful as 40 mph were expected until Tuesday.
The Camp Fire, in Northern California, began early Thursday morning and quickly swept through the town of Paradise, population roughly 26,000 people, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Nichole Jolly, a surgical nurse at Adventist Health Feather River Hospital, recalled beginning her work day like any other — then getting an immediate evacuation order roughly an hour later and scrambling to escape town alive.
With flames on either side of her car — and a cab filling with smoke — she said she ditched the vehicle.
“I called my husband and screamed,” said Jolly, 34. “I said, ‘I think I’m gonna’ die. Tell the kids I love them. I’m not gonna’ make it home.’”
With her shoes melting and her throat burning, Jolly stumbled across a fire truck and banged on the door.
“Two fireman jump out of the truck, extinguish my pants, put me in the fire engine, wrapped me in a blanket and said: ‘Brace yourself we might now make it,'” she said.
Mayor Jody Jones said that 80 to 90 percent of people in Paradise’s residential areas lost their homes. Authorities said that nine bodies were found in homes or cars overcome by flames.
It wasn’t clear how the other fatalities occurred. NBC affiliate KCRA reported that a mobile DNA lab and anthropologists were asked to help identify the dead.
Cal Fire said it doesn’t expect to have the fire, which was 25 percent contained on Sunday, fully under control until the end of the month.
In Southern California, firefighters had mostly hemmed in one potentially dangerous blaze — the Hill Fire, which forced evacuations in Ventura Country and destroyed two buildings. But the Woolsey Fire was only 10 percent contained, according to Cal Fire.
That blaze also ignited on Thursday and tore through mobile homes and mansions as it quickly spread, NBC Los Angeles reported. Two people were found dead inside a vehicle in a driveway on Mulholland Drive, according to the station.
The fires occurred after years of drought and increasingly deadly and destructive fire seasons. Fire officials and climate scientists have, in part, attributed those fires to climate change, saying the state’s fire season may now be year-round.
“It’s really a cumulative effect in that it’s changing the landscape,” Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told NBC News on Friday. “You’re getting longer periods of the year when you get these fires. We’re literally burning the candle at both ends.”
Kalhan Rosenblatt contributed.