Par­adise lost as wild­fires grow­ing

At least five dead as Cal­i­for­nia coast burn­ing up and down, forc­ing 157,000 to flee

The Welland Tribune - - Canada & world - DON THOMP­SON AND PAUL ELIAS

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.

JUSTIN SUL­LI­VAN GETTY IMAGES

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.

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