The worst of the California wildfires — which have already left 31 people dead and 228 others missing — may be yet to come.
In the north, the Camp Fire has already claimed 29 lives and destroyed 113,000 acres, deputy chief of Cal Fire Scott McLean tells PEOPLE, adding that because searching is still ongoing, he “unfortunately [expects] the number of fatalities to rise.” This would make it the deadliest fire in the state’s history.
“What does a firefighter do? We want to save life and property,” McLean says of his team’s experience fighting the blaze. “You can imagine the devastation both emotionally and physically when you can’t do that. It was horrific to say the least.”
The Camp Fire has also leveled 6,435 homes and another 260 commercial structures in Butte County, according to Good Morning America. While winds ramped back up in the region on Sunday, making it more challenging to contain, McLean believes they’re “beginning to subside.”
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In the south of the state, CNN meteorologist Dave Hennen shared that strongest winds may come on Tuesday, “with gusts to near hurricane force,” which could spread the devastation of the Woolsey and Hill fires. Hennen added that more than 13 million people are in “critical danger” across the cities of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Santa Ana, Anaheim and Glendale.
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As of Monday, almost a quarter of a million people had been impacted by the three fires because they had to evacuate, stay in a shelter or another circumstance, McLean says.
On Monday afternoon, the Camp Fire, the largest of the three, was only 25 percent contained. The Hill fire, which has spread across 4,500 acres, is 80 percent contained and will be “wrapped up shortly,” allowing more resources for the Woolsey fire, spanning 91,000 acres and only 20 percent contained.
With the town of Paradise almost completely destroyed, those who remain missing are largely residents of the northern part of the state, according to local outlet ABC 13. And identifying them may be even more of a challenge.
In many cases, the fire was so hot that human bodies could have been “completely consumed” by it, said Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea. “That gives you an understanding of how difficult this task ultimately is,” he added.
Honea went on to say that strangers often seek shelter in other people’s houses during emergencies, so it would be irresponsible to assume a body found in a home automatically belongs to its owner.
“When the fire hit [Paradise,] it came out of that canyon … a huge swath,” McLean recalls. “By 9 a.m. it looked like nighttime, and it stayed that way the rest of the day … All I could do was walk up and down the road consoling people and get them … out of the path of the flames.”
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DNA experts and the Department of Justice are assisting in the efforts, and CNN reports that 10 coroner search-and-recovery teams are also searching for remains. In addition, seven states have contributed emergency resources, and the National Guard has allocated 100 ground troops and helicopters, McLean says.
Other resources for the missing and their families include the Red Cross’s Safe Recovery tool.
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“I’ve been on that website probably once an hour every hour,” Linda Timme told ABC 13 of her search for her aunt, Evelyn Cline, a Butte County resident.
“Prayers of survival, prayers of quick death,” Timme said. “I know it sounds morbid, but it’s awful.”
While it’s still unclear when authorities will have a complete list of the missing and dead — in part because the fires are still active — Hone believes many of the people unaccounted for are at shelters and have yet to be reported safe.
Given possibility that the winds may worsen the fires in days to come, McLean says it’s “too early to tell” what the future devastation may look like.
To help victims of the California wildfires, visit the Los Angeles Fire Department Foundation, the California Fire Foundation and the American Red Cross, for more information.
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