Paradise lost as wildfires growing
At least five dead as California coast burning up and down, forcing 157,000 to flee
PARADISE, CALIF. — Five people were found dead in their burnedout vehicles after a northern California wildfire incinerated most of a town of about 30,000 people with flames that moved so fast there was nothing firefighters could do, officials said Friday.
Only a day after it began, the blaze near the town of Paradise had grown to nearly 285 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.”
With fires also burning in Southern California, state officials put the total number of people forced from their homes at 157,000.
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, 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.
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.
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 slowmotion 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.
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 she was walking, a stranger in the traffic jam rolled down her window asked Miller if she needed help. Miller at first scoffed at the notion of getting back in a stopped car.
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. It took three hours to travel the 22 kilometres.
About 20 of the same deputies who were helping to find and rescue people lost their own homes, Sheriff Kory Honea said.
Firefighters try to prevent flames from a burning home from spreading to a neighbouring apartment complex Friday as they battle the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif.