Paradise lost, Malibu emptied
California’s most destructive wildfire destroys small town, one city evacuated
PARADISE (California): Not a single resident of Paradise can be seen anywhere in town after most of them fled the burning Northern California community that may be lost forever. Abandoned, charred vehicles cluttered the main thoroughfare, evidence of the panicked evacuation a day earlier.
Most of its buildings are in ruin. Entire neighbourhoods are levelled. The business district is destroyed. In a single day, this Sierra Nevada foothill town of 27,000 founded in the 1800s was largely incinerated by flames that moved so fast there was nothing firefighters could do.
Only a day after it began, the blaze that started outside the hilly town of Paradise had grown on Friday to nearly 360sq km and destroyed more than 6,700 structures, almost all of them homes, making it California’s most destructive wildfire since record-keeping began.
Nine people have been found dead, some inside their cars and others outside vehicles or homes after a desperate evacuation that Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea called “the worst-case scenario”.
Their identities were not yet known.
“It is what we feared for a long time,” Honea said, noting there was no time to knock on residents’ doors one-by-one.
With fires also burning in Southern California, state officials put the total number of people forced from their homes at more than 200,000.
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.
He later threatened to withhold federal payments to California, claiming its forest management is “so poor”.
Trump said via Twitter yesterday that “there is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly fires in California”.
Trump said “billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. “Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”
The fire in Paradise, about 290km northeast of San Francisco, was still burning out of control.
A thick, yellow haze hung in the air, giving the appearance of twilight in the middle of the day. Some of the “majestic oaks” the town boasts of on its website still have fires burning in their trunks. Thick wooden posts holding up guardrails continued to burn.
Thursday morning’s evacuation order set off a desperate exodus in which many frantic motorists got stuck in gridlocked traffic. Many abandoned their vehicles to flee on foot as the flames bore down on all sides.
“The fire was so close I could feel it in my car through rolled up windows,” said Rita Miller, who fled with her disabled mother.
Paradise, situated on a ridge between two valleys, was a popular retirement community, raising concerns of elderly and immobile residents who have been reported missing. On the outskirts of town, Patrick Knuthson, a fourth-generation resident, said only two of the 22 homes that once stood on his street are still there – his and a neighbour’s.
“The fire burned from one house, to the next house, to the next house until they were pretty much all gone,” Knuthson said.
California burning: Rubble littering a lot on Skyway after a wildfire burned through Paradise as the Woolsey Fire (above) approaches homes in Malibu. — AP/AFP