Thou­sands forced to flee Cal­i­for­nia wild­fires

Homes and struc­tures de­stroyed as dry winds fuel flames across parched land

Weekend Herald - - World -

Tens of thou­sands of peo­ple have fled a fast-mov­ing wild­fire in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, some clutch­ing ba­bies and pets as they aban­doned ve­hi­cles and struck out on foot ahead of the flames that forced the evac­u­a­tion of an en­tire town and de­stroyed hun­dreds of struc­tures.

“Pretty much the com­mu­nity of Par­adise is de­stroyed, it’s that kind of dev­as­ta­tion,” said Cal Fire Cap­tain Scott McLean yes­ter­day. “The wind that was pre­dicted came and just wiped it out.”

McLean es­ti­mated that a cou­ple of thou­sand struc­tures were de­stroyed in the town of 27,000 res­i­dents about 290km north­east of San Fran­cisco, where res­i­dents scram­bled to flee. The ex­tent of the in­juries and spe­cific dam­age count was not im­me­di­ately known as of­fi­cials could not ac­cess the dan­ger­ous area.

Butte County Cal Fire Chief Dar­ren Read said at a news con­fer­ence that two fire­fight­ers and mul­ti­ple res­i­dents were in­jured.

As she fled, Gina Oviedo de­scribed a dev­as­tat­ing scene in which flames en­gulfed homes, sparked ex­plo­sions and top­pled util­ity poles.

“Things started ex­plod­ing,” Oviedo said. “Peo­ple started get­ting out of their ve­hi­cles and run­ning.”

An As­so­ci­ated Press pho­tog­ra­pher saw dozens of busi­nesses and homes lev­elled or in flames, in­clud­ing a liquor store and petrol sta­tion.

“It’s a very dan­ger­ous and very se­ri­ous sit­u­a­tion,” Butte County Sher­iff Kory Honea said. “I’m driv­ing through fire as we speak. We’re do­ing ev­ery­thing we can to get peo­ple out of the af­fected ar­eas.”

The blaze erupted as windy weather swept the state, cre­at­ing an ex­treme fire dan­ger.

A wind-whipped fire north of Los An­ge­les in Ven­tura County burned up to 40km sq and at least one home in a mat­ter of hours. It threat­ened thou­sands of homes and prompted evac­u­a­tions of a mo­bile home park, a state univer­sity cam­pus and some neigh­bour­hoods.

A nearby blaze was smaller at about 5km sq but was mov­ing quickly.

Act­ing Cal­i­for­nia Gover­nor Gavin New­som de­clared a state of emer­gency for the fire-stricken area in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia and re­quested a pres­i­den­tial dis­as­ter dec­la­ra­tion, say­ing that dan­ger­ous weather con­di­tions were ex­pected to last for sev­eral days.

Shari Ber­nacett said her hus­band tried to get peo­ple to leave the Par­adise mo­bile home park they man­age. He “knocked on doors, yelled and screamed” to alert as many res­i­dents as pos­si­ble, Ber­nacett said.

“My hus­band tried his best to get ev­ery­body out. The whole hill’s on fire. God help us!” she said be­fore break­ing down cry­ing. She and her hus­band grabbed their dog, jumped in their pickup truck and drove through flames be­fore get­ting to safety, she said.

Ter­ri­fy­ing videos posted on so­cial me­dia showed cars driv­ing along roads that looked like tun­nels of fire with flames on both sides of the road.

Con­cerned friends and fam­ily posted fran­tic mes­sages on Twit­ter and other sites say­ing they were look­ing for loved ones, par­tic­u­larly se­niors who lived at re­tire­ment homes or alone.

Among them was Kim Cur­tis, who was search­ing for her grand­mother, who told fam­ily yes­ter­day that she would flee her Par­adise home in her Buick with her cat. Her grand­mother, who is in her 70s and lives alone, never showed up at a meet­ing spot in Chico, though.

“We’ve just been post­ing all over so­cial me­dia. And just pray­ing for a mir­a­cle, hon­estly,” said Cur­tis, who lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Of­fi­cials were send­ing as many fire­fight­ers as they could, Cal Fire spokesman Rick Carhart said.

“Ev­ery en­gine that we could put on the fire is on the fire right now, and more are com­ing,” he said. “There are dozens of strike teams that we’re bring­ing in from all parts of the state.”

The sher­iff con­firmed re­ports that evac­uees had to aban­don their ve­hi­cles. Res­cuers were try­ing to put them in other ve­hi­cles, he said.

“We’re work­ing very hard to get peo­ple out. The mes­sage I want to get out is: If you can evac­u­ate, you need to evac­u­ate,” Honea said.

The wild­fire was re­ported around day­break. Within six hours, it had grown to more than 70km sq, Gad­die said.

Thick grey smoke and ash filled the sky above Par­adise and could be seen from miles away.

Fire of­fi­cials said the flames were be­ing fu­elled by winds, low hu­mid­ity, dry air and se­verely parched brush and ground from months with­out rain.

“Ba­si­cally, we haven’t had rain since last May or be­fore that,” said Read, the fire chief. “Ev­ery­thing is a very re­cep­tive fuel bed. It’s a rapid rate of spread.”

At the hos­pi­tal in Par­adise, more than 60 pa­tients were evac­u­ated to other fa­cil­i­ties and some build­ings caught fire and were dam­aged. But the main fa­cil­ity, Ad­ven­tist Health Feather River Hos­pi­tal, was not, spokes­woman Jill Kin­ney said.

Some of the pa­tients were ini­tially turned around dur­ing their evac­u­a­tion be­cause of grid­locked traf­fic and later air­lifted to other hospi­tals, along with staff, Kin­ney said.

Four hos­pi­tal em­ploy­ees were briefly trapped in the base­ment and res­cued by Cal­i­for­nia High­way Pa­trol of­fi­cers, Kin­ney said.

The Na­tional Weather Ser­vice is­sued red-flag warn­ings for fire dan­gers in many ar­eas of the state, say­ing low hu­mid­ity and strong winds were ex­pected to con­tinue through to­day.

Photo / AP

The fire dev­as­tated the town of Par­adise, home to 27,000 res­i­dents.

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