Wildfires take heavy toll
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 say.
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 6700 structures – almost all of them homes – and was burning completely out of control.
‘‘There was really no firefight involved,’’ Captain 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.’’
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.
US 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 became 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 290km 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 massive blaze spread north yesterday, 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, Captain Bill Murphy said.
Evacuees from Paradise sat in stunned silence outside a Chico church where they had taken 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. crashed and others left 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 Some their Friday, telling her she had to get her disabled mother, who lived a few blocks away, and flee Paradise immediately. Miller jumped into her boyfriend’s rickety pickup truck, which was low on fuel and had 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.
The stranger helped Miller pack up her mother and took them to safety in Chico. It took three hours to travel the 22km.
Concerned friends and family posted anxious messages on Twitter and other websites, saying they were looking for loved ones, particularly seniors who lived at retirement homes or alone.
About 20 of the deputies who were helping to find and rescue people lost their own homes, Sheriff Kory Honea said.
‘‘The community of Paradise is destroyed. It’s that kind of devastation.’’ Captain Scott McLean, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection
A Sonoma Valley firefighter inspects burned-out cars to make sure they are clear of human remains, in Paradise, California. When the town was evacuated, many motorists became stuck in gridlocked traffic and abandoned their vehicles to flee on foot.
Police officer Randy Law tends to a rescued horse at an abandoned service station in Paradise.