Costs associated with the deadly Camp Fire will likely reach into the billions, said U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke during a visit Monday to the fire-ravaged town of Paradise.
Zinke, who first visited the region two weeks ago, said he has never witnessed such devastation. The Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in modern California history, has killed at least 85 people.
"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, nodding to other public services, such as improving visitor experiences at Yosemite National Park or thinning forests.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue joined Zinke on his tour of Paradise, which was decimated by the fire that ignited in the parched Sierra Nevada foothills on Nov. 8 and quickly spread across 240 square miles, scorching an area roughly the size of Chicago.
Perdue suggested donating timber from the nearby Plumas National Forest to rebuild Paradise.
The U.S. government has already distributed more than $20 million in assistance for people displaced by the catastrophic wildfire, a Federal Emergency Management Agency official said Monday, as hundreds of searchers continued looking for more human remains.
The Camp Fire destroyed nearly 14,000 homes in Paradise and the surrounding area. Fire officials this weekend said the blaze had been fully contained.
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 has also 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, Butte County Sheriff Kory 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.
Associated Press writer Paul Elias also contributed to this report.