Death toll up to 25 in wild­fire

35 more are miss­ing amid worst blaze in Cal­i­for­nia his­tory

The Day - - FRONT PAGE - By JOEL ACHENBACH, E. AARON WIL­LIAMS and CLEVE R. WOOTSON Jr.

Agoura Hills, Calif. — Col­lege pro­fes­sor Jeff McCle­na­han hiked up a wind­ing road Satur­day to­ward a ter­ri­ble un­known, ex­pect­ing the worst.

The fe­ro­cious Woolsey Fire had come through Fri­day af­ter leap­ing the free­way. McCle­na­han had grabbed his wife’s com­puter and some doc­u­ments and evac­u­ated. That night, some­one had posted a photo on so­cial me­dia of a nearby house con­sumed by the flames. He had stayed awake all night, think­ing: “I’ll never wear that cow­boy hat again. I’ll never wear that sweater again.”

But fires can be capri­cious. Maybe he still had his home?

He ar­rived, and stared. A house that has suc­cumbed to a wild­fire is rarely just a lit­tle bit de­stroyed. The dam­age al­most al­ways looks as if the struc­ture had not merely been

burned, but also bombed. A water pipe spurted half­heart­edly over the ru­ins.

“On the one hand ... it’s stuff,” McCle­na­han said, strug­gling to main­tain his com­po­sure. “But it’s a lot of his­tory. Ev­ery­thing, our whole lives were in here.”

“Oh, you get to start over,” he said. Then he crum­bled to his knees and sobbed.

The wild­fires scorch­ing Cal­i­for­nia in the past few days have been vast, bring­ing their de­struc­tion and lethal­ity to nu­mer­ous com­mu­ni­ties across large swaths of the state, in­clud­ing this one in Los Angeles County and an­other gi­gan­tic burn along the north­ern moun­tains.

The Camp Fire, in the Sierra Ne­vada foothills north of Sacra­mento, is now the most-de­struc­tive in­di­vid­ual wild­fire in Cal­i­for­nia’s his­tory. As of Satur­day, it al­ready had de­stroyed nearly 7,000 struc­tures in and around the moun­tain town of Par­adise and has been blamed for 25 deaths, though more could come. Sher­iff’s deputies are look­ing into 35 re­ports of miss­ing peo­ple.

“This event was the worstcase sce­nario,” Butte County Sher­iff Kory Honea said. “It’s the event that we have feared for a long time.”

The smoke, like or­ange fog, that en­veloped Chico and sur­round­ing towns Fri­day gave way to a low-ly­ing haze that spread all the way up to Red­ding on Satur­day, thanks to a shift in winds overnight.

Sur­gi­cal nurse Ni­c­hole Jolly, who turned 34 on Fri­day, spent her birth­day help­ing evac­u­ate all the pa­tients from Chico’s only hospi­tal. She didn’t know if her home sur­vived. Af­ter clear­ing the hospi­tal, she tried to leave the area but was trapped by smoke and flames. Her car caught fire. A call from her hus­band, in a place where cell­phone ser­vice is no­to­ri­ously spotty, came through and “he told me to get out and run.”

“I told him I wasn’t sure I was go­ing to make it out,” she said. “I told him I loved him and told him to give the kids a kiss. He told me to get out of the car and run, that if you’re go­ing to die, die fight­ing.”

A bull­dozer picked her up and brought her back to Ad­ven­tist Health Feather River hospi­tal, where staff, trapped in place, started a triage area out­side be­cause “the whole place smelled like burned plas­tic.”

Staff, pa­tients and any­one who could hold a fire ex­tin­guisher watched for spot fires. She said there were about 10 nurses, two doc­tors and a res­pi­ra­tory therapist who spent the next five or six hours treat­ing any­one who found their way to the hospi­tal.

“Peo­ple were mak­ing sure no one was left be­hind,” she said. “Strangers help­ing strangers. We might be a di­vided coun­try, but it didn’t mat­ter that day. Black, white, Demo­crat, Repub­li­can; none of that mat­tered. Peo­ple just helped one an­other, and it was amaz­ing to see.”

Here in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, in­ves­ti­ga­tors said two bod­ies were found, deaths that might be linked to the wild­fire. Winds eased Satur­day, but they are ex­pected to ramp up again to­day. The weather that is con­ducive to fires — dry air, not a drop of rain, high winds — is fore­cast to con­tinue un­til late Tues­day.

About 200,000 peo­ple, enough to fill the Rose Bowl twice, were forced to evac­u­ate from the Woolsey Fire, which sparked into ex­is­tence midafter­noon Thurs­day near Simi Val­ley even as fire de­part­ments were re­spond­ing to a sec­ond wild­fire, called the Hill Fire, just west of Thou­sand Oaks. The Woolsey Fire proved to be truly ex­plo­sive, ex­pand­ing within 24 hours to some 35,000 acres. It raced from the Conejo Val­ley to the Pa­cific Ocean, straight across High­way 101 and the Santa Mon­ica moun­tains, at speeds that im­pressed vet­eran fire of­fi­cials.

“It’s spread­ing quicker than it used to,” said Mark Loren­zen, chief of the Ven­tura County Fire Depart­ment.

They weren’t sur­prised. They knew the wind was coming, and when there is wind here, there is fire, re­li­ably. But David Richard­son, deputy chief of the Los Angeles County Fire Depart­ment, said ev­ery­one had ex­pected a lull in the wind Fri­day af­ter­noon, and it didn’t ma­te­ri­al­ize. The gusts stayed dan­ger­ous.

“This fire is very bad and mon­u­men­tal. It’s a his­toric fire,” Richard­son said. “These fires come along ev­ery 30 years or so.”

This was an un­pre­dictable fire, one that burned some houses to the foun­da­tion, ev­ery­thing gone, noth­ing but charred ru­ins, while leav­ing the one next door un­touched. That was the case in Oak Park, which abuts the rugged hills sep­a­rat­ing Conejo Val­ley from Simi Val­ley. Peo­ple were still grad­u­ally re­turn­ing to their neigh­bor­hoods Satur­day, and what they found was a largely in­tact com­mu­nity pocked with de­stroyed houses.

“It’s just na­ture. Na­ture makes its choices,” said a man walk­ing his dog, too busy on his cell­phone to pro­vide his name or any other in­for­ma­tion.

Cal­i­for­ni­ans have a re­la­tion­ship with fire. They read smoke sig­nals. They will study the fire glow on a ridge­line and fore­cast their im­me­di­ate fu­ture based on what they smell. They know what to pack. They know to turn their cars around in the drive­way, aimed to­ward safety.

They are re­quired by law to have “de­fen­si­ble space” around their homes, free of brush, a fire­break built into the build­ing codes. They know how fire spreads: “We get this em­ber wash. It looks like a bil­lion fire­flies,” Loren­zen said.

The em­bers were largely gone Satur­day, but the smoke re­mained — in­escapable, pool­ing in lower el­e­va­tions. Spot fires re­mained, and the ground smol­dered. Among the things con­sumed by flames was Para­mount Ranch, a fake Western town used for HBO’s “West­world” and other shows dat­ing back more than a half-cen­tury.

KYLE GRILLOT/THE WASHINGTON POST

A mo­tor­cy­cle be­gins to catch fire out­side an en­gulfed struc­ture at a park for recre­ational ve­hi­cles in Mal­ibu, Calif.

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