Deadly fires rage across Cal­i­for­nia

Five found dead as thou­sands forced to flee

Montreal Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - DON THOMP­SON, PAUL ELIAS, JONATHAN J. COOPER AND BRIAN MEL­LEY

PAR­ADISE, CALIF. • Five peo­ple were found dead in burnt-out ve­hi­cles af­ter a North­ern Cal­i­for­nia wild­fire in­cin­er­ated most of this town of 30,000 peo­ple with flames that moved so fast there was noth­ing fire­fight­ers could do.

Only a day af­ter it be­gan, the blaze near the town of Par­adise had grown to nearly 280 square kilo­me­tres and was burn­ing com­pletely out of con­trol.

“There was re­ally no fire­fight in­volved,” Capt. Scott McLean of the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion said, ex­plain­ing that crews gave up at­tack­ing the flames and in­stead helped peo­ple get out alive.

“These fire­fight­ers were in the res­cue mode all day yes­ter­day.”

At the other end of the state, Thou­sand Oaks, reel­ing from the tragedy of a mass shooting, was un­der a siege of a dif­fer­ent sort as rag­ing wild­fires on both sides of the city forced evac­u­a­tions and shut down part of the main free­way to town.

Flames driven by pow­er­ful winds torched dozens of hill­side homes in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, burn­ing parts of tony Cal­abasas and man­sions in Mal­ibu and forc­ing tens of thou­sands of peo­ple to flee as the fire marched across the Santa Mon­ica Moun­tains to­ward the sea.

For Thou­sand Oaks, a Los An­ge­les sub­urb that had been con­sid­ered one of the safest cities in the na­tion be­fore a gun­man mas­sa­cred 12 peo­ple at a coun­try mu­sic bar, the spasm of vi­o­lence jolted the city’s sense of se­cu­rity.

“It’s devastating. It’s like ‘wel­come to hell,’ ” res­i­dent Cyn­thia Ball, said about the dual dis­as­ters out­side the teen cen­tre that is serv­ing as a shel­ter for evac­uees.

“I don’t even know what to say. It’s like we’re all walk­ing around kind of in a trance.”

Evac­u­a­tion or­ders in­cluded the en­tire city of Mal­ibu, which is home to 13,000, among them some of Hollywood’s big­gest stars.

Kim Kar­dashian West, Scott Baio, Rainn Wil­son and Guillermo del Toro were among nu­mer­ous celebri­ties forced to evac­u­ate their homes, in some cases hur­riedly try­ing to ar­range trans­port for their horses.

Some, like del Toro and Cait­lyn Jen­ner, did not know the fate of their homes, but fire de­stroyed the home of Dr. Strange direc­tor Scott Der­rick­son and the historic Paramount Ranch where shows like HBO’s West­world and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman were filmed.

Hours north, when Par­adise was evac­u­ated, the or­der set off a des­per­ate ex­o­dus in which many mo­torists got stuck in grid­locked traf­fic and aban­doned their ve­hi­cles to flee on foot.

Peo­ple re­ported see­ing much of the com­mu­nity go up in flames, in­clud­ing homes, su­per­mar­kets, busi­nesses, restau­rants, schools and a re­tire­ment cen­tre.

McLean es­ti­mated that the lost build­ings num­bered in the thou­sands in Par­adise, about 290 kilo­me­tres north­east of San Fran­cisco.

“Pretty much the com­mu­nity of Par­adise is de­stroyed.

“It’s that kind of dev­as­ta­tion,” he said.

Nurse Dar­rel Wilken said Fri­day that the fire came so quickly that he and other em­ploy­ees at the Ad­ven­tist Health Feather River Hospi­tal used their own cars to evac­u­ate pa­tients. Wilken said he took three pa­tients in his car and that two of them were in crit­i­cal con­di­tion.

Par­adise res­i­dent Cody Knowles said his wife, Francine, was hav­ing gall­blad­der surgery Thurs­day morn­ing. When the evac­u­a­tion was an­nounced, she was still asleep from anes­the­sia. He waited un­til she woke up and they es­caped in a hospi­tal em­ployee’s car.

Evac­uees from Par­adise sat in stunned si­lence Fri­day out­side a church in nearby Chico where they took refuge the night be­fore. They all had har­row­ing tales of a slow-mo­tion es­cape from a fire so close they could feel the heat in­side their ve­hi­cles as they sat stuck in a ter­ri­fy­ing traf­fic jam.

Fire sur­rounded the evac­u­a­tion route, and driv­ers pan­icked. Some crashed and oth­ers left their ve­hi­cles

by the road­side.

“It was just a wall of fire on each side of us, and we could hardly see the road in front of us,” po­lice of­fi­cer Mark Bass said.

A nurse called Rita Miller on Thurs­day morn­ing, telling her she had to get her dis­abled mother, who lives a few blocks away, and flee Par­adise im­me­di­ately. Miller jumped in her boyfriend’s rick­ety pickup truck, which was low on gas and equipped with a bad trans­mis­sion. She in­stantly found her­self stuck in grid­lock.

“I was fran­tic,” she said. Af­ter an hour of no move­ment, she aban­doned the truck and de­cided to try her luck on foot. While walk­ing, a stranger in the traf­fic jam rolled down her win­dow and asked Miller if she needed help. Miller at first scoffed at the no­tion of get­ting back in a ve­hi­cle.

Then she re­con­sid­ered, think­ing: “I’m re­ally scared. This is ter­ri­fy­ing. I can’t breathe. I can’t see, and maybe I should hum­ble my­self and get in this woman’s car.”

RINGO H.W. CHIU / THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A wild­fire rages in Mal­ibu, Calif., Fri­day. About two-thirds of the city of Mal­ibu was or­dered evac­u­ated as a fe­ro­cious blaze roared to­ward the beach­side com­mu­nity that is home to about 13,000 res­i­dents, in­clud­ing Hollywood stars.

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