Cal­i­for­nia’s rag­ing fires claim lives of 9 peo­ple

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A pow­er­ful 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 said Fri­day. Nine peo­ple died, in­clud­ing five who were found in their burned­out ve­hi­cles.

Only a day af­ter it be­gan, the blaze near the town of Par­adise had grown to nearly 140 square miles, had de­stroyed more than 6,700 struc­tures — al­most all of them homes — and was burn­ing 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 es­cape them. “These fire-

fighters 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 about 250,000. Evac­u­a­tion or­ders in­cluded the en­tire city of Mal­ibu, which is home to 13,000 peo­ple, 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.

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, super­mar­kets, busi­nesses, restau­rants, schools and a re­tire­ment cen­ter.

Ru­ral ar­eas fared lit­tle bet­ter. Many homes have propane tanks that were ex­plod­ing in 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 180 miles 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 Co. told state reg­u­la­tors it ex­pe­ri­enced a fail­ure on an elec­tri­cal trans­mis­sion line near Par­adise about 15 min­utes be­fore the blaze broke out. The util­ity said it later no­ticed dam­age at a trans­mis­sion tower near the town.

The 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, said Capt. Bill Mur­phy of the fire pro­tec­tion agency.

Fire­fight­ers have strug­gled to over­come the nat­u­ral bar­rier of steep ter­rain in burn ar­eas. That forced of­fi­cials to take to the skies to bat­tle the blazes with flame re­tar­dants, much of it dis­persed by gusts that topped 40 mph.

“We’re do­ing our best to at­tack this fire from the air, but ex­treme winds pro­hibits our abil­ity,” Ven­tura County Fire Capt. Stan Ziegler said.

The fires have brack­eted Thou­sand Oaks, where a gun­man en­tered the Border­line Bar & Grill on Wed­nes­day night and killed 12 peo­ple be­fore killing him­self.

“It’s dev­as­tat­ing. It’s like ‘wel­come to hell,’” res­i­dent Cyn­thia Ball said about the dis­as­ters out­side a teen cen­ter that is serv­ing as a shel­ter for evac­uees. “I don’t even know what to say. It’s like we’re all walk­ing around kind of in a trance.”

A day ear­lier, the fa­cil­ity had been the lo­ca­tion where griev­ing fam­ily mem­bers had gath­ered and re­ceived the grim news on the fate of loved ones who had not re­turned from the Border­line Bar & Grill.

FLEE­ING IN PANIC

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.

At one burned-out house, flames still smol­dered in­side what ap­peared to be a weight room. The rub­ble in­cluded a pair of dumb­bells with the rub­ber melted off and the skele­tons of a metal pull-up bar and other ex­er­cise equip­ment. The grass and elab­o­rate land­scap­ing all around the brick-and-stucco home re­mained an emer­ald green. Red pool um­brel­las were furled near lounge chairs and showed not a singe on them.

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 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. 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, 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 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, 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 14 miles.

At the Val­lecito mo­bile home park for se­nior cit­i­zens in Ven­tura County, the fire ar­rived so quickly that res­i­dents had no time to gather med­i­ca­tions and doc­u­ments. With flames bear­ing down, fire­fight­ers car­ried peo­ple from homes and put them in empty seats of their neigh­bors’ cars, said Carol Napoli, 74.

Napoli left with her friend, the friend’s son and her mother who is in her 90s and had to leave be­hind her oxy­gen tank.

“We drove through flames to get out. They had us in like a car­a­van,” Napoli said. “My girl­friend was driv­ing. She said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ Her son said, ‘Mom you have to, you have to drive through the flames.’”

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

About 20 of the same deputies who were help­ing to find and res­cue peo­ple lost their own homes, Sher­iff Kory Honea said.

“There are times when you have such rapid-mov­ing fires … no amount of plan­ning is go­ing to re­sult in a per­fect sce­nario, and that’s what we had to deal with here,” Honea told the Ac­tion News Net­work.

Kelly Lee called shel­ters look­ing for her hus­band’s 93-year-old grand­mother, Dorothy Her­rera, who was last heard from Thurs­day morn­ing. Her­rera, who lives in Par­adise with her 88-year-old hus­band, Lou, left a fran­tic voice mail around 9:30 a.m. say­ing they needed to get out.

“We never heard from them again,” Lee said. “We’re wor­ried sick. … They do have a car, but they both are older and can be con­fused at times.”

The miss­ing in­cluded Richard Wayne John­son and his wife, Suzanne, who lived in an RV park in Par­adise that burned, ac­cord­ing to his daugh­ter Dawn John­son of In­de­pen­dent, Ore.

“He has Stage 4 prostate can­cer. She’s in her 70s and mostly con­fined to her bed due to fi­bromyal­gia,” John­son said. “I would be very sur­prised if they had gas in their car to leave.”

She said the cou­ple moved from Texas to the Cal­i­for­nia foothill town about a year ago and were prob­a­bly not pre­pared for wild­fires.

John­son said she has not been able to reach them by cell­phone, and mem­bers of the cou­ple’s Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses King­dom Hall in Par­adise told her they have not seen them at lo­cal shel­ters.

“I checked all over,” she said. “Red Cross, any­thing you can think of I’ve tried to do.”

In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Don Thomp­son, Gil­lian Flac­cus, Paul Elias, Jo­ce­lyn Gecker, Janie Har, Daisy Nguyen, Olga R. Ro­driguez, Sudhin Thanawala, Jonathan J. Cooper, Brian Mel­ley, Juliet Wil­liams, Amanda Lee My­ers and John Antczak of The As­so­ci­ated Press; by Joel Achenbach, Katie Zez­ima and Alex Hor­ton of The Wash­ing­ton Post; and by Kirk John­son and Matt Stevens of The New York Times.

AP/NOAH BERGER

Fire­fighter Jose Corona watches a house go up in flames as he sprays wa­ter on it Fri­day in Ma­galia in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia. The town is north of Par­adise and was threat­ened by the same wild­fire.

AP/RINGO H.W. CHIU

Heavy smoke from a wild­fire in Mal­ibu, Calif., rises over mo­torists and a biker Fri­day on the Pa­cific Coast High­way near the Santa Mon­ica Moun­tains. The city of Mal­ibu was or­dered evac­u­ated.

AP/RINGO H.W. CHIU

Fire­fight­ers move a car away from a burn­ing house Fri­day near Mal­ibu Lake in Mal­ibu, Calif.

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