AT LEAST 9 DEAD AS WILD­FIRE IN­CIN­ER­ATES N. CALIF. TOWN

Chicago Sun-Times - - NATION / WORLD - BY DON THOMP­SON AND GIL­LIAN FLAC­CUS

PAR­ADISE, Calif. — 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 said Fri­day. 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 140 square miles, had de­stroyed more than 6,700 struc­tures — al­most all of them homes — and was burn­ing com­pletely 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 get out alive. “Th­ese fire­fight­ers 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, among them some of Hol­ly­wood’s big­gest stars.

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.

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.

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 Fri­day, prompt­ing of­fi­cials to or­der the evac­u­a­tion of Stir­ling City and In­skip, two com­mu­ni­ties north of Par­adise along the Sierra Ne­vada foothills. The 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, Cal Fire Cpt. Bill Mur­phy said.

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.

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.

Of­fi­cials said all the vic­tims were found in Par­adise, in­clud­ing four who died in­side their ve­hi­cles.

NOAH BERGER/AP

Fire­fighter Jose Corona mon­i­tors a burn­ing home Fri­day as a wild­fire burns in Ma­galia, Cal­i­for­nia.

JOHN LOCHER/AP

Sonoma Val­ley fire­fight­ers in­spect burned out cars Fri­day to make sure they are clear of hu­man re­mains af­ter a wild­fire swept through Par­adise, Cal­i­for­nia.

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