Butte County fire razes at least 1,000 structures
OROVILLE — In what officials described as “mass devastation,” at least 1,000 structures were lost Thursday when a fire swept through the Northern California town of Paradise, forcing residents to run for their lives.
The Butte County fire exploded from 10 acres to more than 10,000 acres in a matter of hours, taking direct aim at the town of 27,000 known as a popular retirement community.
“It has destroyed the town,” said Scott McLean, a Cal Fire spokesman.
As people raced to safety, roads became choked with traffic, forcing some to flee on foot as the fire engulfed nearby homes and buildings. One hospital was evacuated — its patients were taken to nearby medical facilities — and parts of its campus were damaged by the flames.
Named the Camp Fire because it began near Camp Creek Road in Butte County, the blaze was first reported around 6:30 a.m., according to a spokesman with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. By midday, the fire had burned 18,000 acres and smoke had blanketed the town in darkness.
“It’s been nighttime for the last six hours, the smoke has come down so low and so heavy,” McLean said.
At a Red Cross shelter in Oroville, two women described their harrowing escape from a burning mobile home park in Paradise. Soon after, the trauma hit Patsy Jacobs, 62, and she began to sob.
“It’s all right,” said her neighbor, Jane Palmer, 77. “We’re alive.”
The rapid spread of the blaze spurred acting California Gov. Gavin Newsom — who is filling in while Gov. Jerry Brown is out of state — to declare a state of emergency for Butte County. Hours after the Camp Fire began, the same gusty winds caused another wildfire to erupt in Southern California, threatening homes in Ventura County.
In Butte County, residents in several towns hugging California 70 near the Plumas National Forest were ordered to evacuate and the highway was closed. In addition to Paradise, people in Concow, Pulga, Magalia, Butte Creek Canyon and Butte Valley were told to leave their homes, according to the Butte County Sheriff’s Office. Butte College was closed and turned into a command center for firefighters and other emergency workers.
Multiple evacuation centers were opened in churches and on fairgrounds in nearby towns. Late Thursday, evacuation orders were expanded west to the city limits of Chico, according to the Butte County Sheriff’s Office. Officers were working through requests to check the welfare of some 400 people, down from an initial 600-plus such requests, authorities said.
Thousands of motorists spilled onto local roadways, following recently redesigned evacuation routes intended to make it easier for them to escape. Yet many wound up sitting in gridlock.
“I saw a steady line of cars, bumper to bumper, trying to get out of Paradise,” said Shaaron Vogel, 67, a member of the nursing faculty at Butte College. “Watching the drivers that were trying to get away was horrifying because you could see their faces and how scared they were. It really brings it home how many lives it’s affected. And so fast.”
On social media, people trying to evacuate described being stuck in their cars, watching as nearby homes burned. The sky turned black with ash and smoke. Some abandoned their vehicles, creating yet another obstacle for those attempting to escape. Firetrucks and bulldozers had to be brought in to clear away the driver-less cars.
Gilbert and Susanne Orr, who fled their home in Concow for the safety of a Red Cross shelter in Oroville, said they ended up sitting in stop-andstart traffic as sparks from the fire blew across their car. To make the situation worse, the driver’s-side window on their Trans Am wouldn’t close.
“It was burning on both sides of the road, and the wind was blowing and it’s just blowing right across the car,” said Susanne, 68.
“We couldn’t get the people to move,” said Gilbert, 71. “We were so scared. Everybody was so scared.”
The couple’s home survived a forest fire in 2008, but they said they don’t think it will survive this one. By the time they left, taking little else with them except a young hound dog named Duke, there were flames by their woodshed and their pasture was ablaze.
Kim Benn, 49, said she was so certain that she was going to die, trapped in her car with flames on both sides while trying to get out of Paradise, that she called her mother to say goodbye.