Butte County fire razes at least 1,000 struc­tures

Lodi News-Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Paige St. John , Anna M. Phillips and Alene Tchekmedyian

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.

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