Wild­fires take heavy toll

Sunday Star-Times - - WORLD -

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

AP

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.

AP

Po­lice of­fi­cer Randy Law tends to a res­cued horse at an aban­doned ser­vice sta­tion in Par­adise.

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