Paradise lost as thousands forced to flee flames on foot
Tens of thousands of people fled a fast-moving fire yesterday in Northern California, some clutching babies and pets as they abandoned vehicles and struck out on foot ahead of the flames that forced the evacuation of an entire town and destroyed hundreds of structures.
“Pretty much the community of Paradise is destroyed, it’s that kind of devastation,” said Cal Fire captain Scott McLean.
“The wind that was predicted came and just wiped it out.”
Captain McLean estimated that a couple of thousand structures were destroyed in the town of 27,000 residents about 290km northeast of San Francisco, where residents scrambled to flee.
The extent of injuries was not known as officials could not access the dangerous area, but Butte County Cal Fire chief Darren Read said at least two firefighters and multiple residents had been injured.
As she fled, Gina Oviedo described a scene in which flames engulfed homes, sparked explosions and toppled utility poles. “Things started exploding,” she said.
“People started getting out of their vehicles and running.”
Dozens of businesses and homes had been levelled or were in flames, including a liquor store and petrol station. “It’s a very dangerous and very serious situation,” Butte County sheriff Kory Honea said. “I’m driving through fire as we speak. We’re doing everything we can to get people out of the affected areas.”
The blaze erupted as windy weather swept the state, creating extreme fire danger.
A wind-whipped fire north of Los Angeles in Ventura County burned up to 40sq km and at least one home in a matter of hours. It threatened thousands of homes and prompted evacuations. A nearby blaze was smaller at about 3sq km but moving quickly.
Acting Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency for the fire-stricken area in Northern California and requested a presidential disaster declaration, saying dangerous conditions were expected to last several days.
Shari Bernacett said her husband tried to get people to leave the Paradise mobile home park they manage. He “knocked on doors, yelled and screamed” to alert as many residents as possible, Ms Bernacett said.
“My husband tried his best to get everybody out. The whole hill’s on fire. God help us!”
They drove through flames before getting to safety. Videos on social media showed cars driving along roads that looked like tunnels of fire.
Officials were sending as many firefighters as they could, Cal Fire spokesman Rick Carhart said.
“Every engine that we could put on the fire is on the fire right now, and more are coming,” he said. “There are dozens of strike teams that we’re bringing in from all parts of the state.”
Mr Honea said evacuees had to abandon their vehicles. Rescuers were trying to put them in other vehicles. “We’re working very hard to get people out. The message I want to get out is: If you can evacuate, you need to evacuate,” he said.
A home ablaze in Paradise, California, yesterday