Cal­i­for­nia town up in flames

At least 9 dead, about 250,000 peo­ple evac­u­ated due to fires

Penticton Herald - - FRONT PAGE -

PAR­ADISE, Calif. — A fierce wild­fire in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia in­cin­er­ated most of a town of about 30,000 peo­ple with flames that moved so fast there was noth­ing fire­fight­ers could do, au­thor­i­ties said Fri­day.

Nine peo­ple died in what quickly grew into the state’s most de­struc­tive fire in at least a cen­tury.

Only a day af­ter it be­gan, the blaze near the town of Par­adise had grown to nearly 362 square kilo­me­tres, had de­stroyed more than 6,700 struc­tures — al­most all of them homes — 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.”

With fires also burn­ing in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, state of­fi­cials put the to­tal num­ber of peo­ple forced from their homes at about 250,000. Evac­u­a­tion or­ders in­cluded the en­tire city of Mal­ibu, which is home to 13,000, among them some of Hol­ly­wood’s big­gest stars.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump is­sued an emer­gency dec­la­ra­tion pro­vid­ing fed­eral funds for Butte, Ven­tura and Los An­ge­les coun­ties.

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.

Ru­ral ar­eas fared lit­tle bet­ter. Many homes have propane tanks that were ex­plod­ing amid the flames. “They were go­ing off like bombs,” said Karen Au­day, who es­caped to a nearby town.

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.

While the cause of the fire wasn’t known, Pa­cific Gas & Elec­tric Com­pany told state reg­u­la­tors it ex­pe­ri­enced an out­age on an elec­tri­cal trans­mis­sion line near Par­adise about 15 min­utes be­fore the blaze broke out. The com­pany said it later no­ticed dam­age to a trans­mis­sion tower near the town. The util­ity’s fil­ing was first re­ported by KQED News.

The mas­sive blaze spread north Fri­day, prompt­ing of­fi­cials to or­der the evac­u­a­tion of Stir­ling City and In­skip, two com­mu­ni­ties north of Par­adise along the Sierra Ne­vada foothills.

The wind-driven flames also spread to the west and reached Chico, a city of 90,000 peo­ple. Fire­fight­ers were able to stop the fire at the edge of the city, Cal Fire Capt. Bill Mur­phy said.

There were no signs of life Fri­day on the road to Par­adise ex­cept for the oc­ca­sional bird chirp. A thick, yel­low haze from the fire hung in the air and gave the ap­pear­ance of twi­light in the mid­dle of the day.

Strong winds had blown the black­ened nee­dles on some ev­er­greens straight to one side. A scorched car with its doors open sat on the shoul­der.

At one burned-out house, flames still smoul­dered in­side what ap­peared to be a weight room. The rub­ble in­cluded a pair of dumb­bells with the rub­ber melted off and the skele­tons of a metal pullup bar and other ex­er­cise equip­ment. The grass and elab­o­rate land­scap­ing all around the brick and stucco home re­mained an emer­ald green. Red pool um­brel­las were furled near lounge chairs and showed not a singe on them.

Evac­uees from Par­adise sat in stunned si­lence Fri­day out­side a Chico church 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.

When the or­der came to evac­u­ate, it was like the en­tire town of 27,000 res­i­dents de­cided to leave at once, they said. 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.

Of­fi­cials said all the vic­tims were found in Par­adise, in­clud­ing four who died in­side their ve­hi­cles.

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.”

The stranger helped Miller pack up her mother and took them to safety in Chico.

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