Cal­i­for­nia wild­fires con­tinue to spread

The Sentinel-Record - - FRONT PAGE - DON THOMP­SON GIL­LIAN FLAC­CUS

PAR­ADISE, Calif. — 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. Six peo­ple died, in­clud­ing five who were found in their burned-out ve­hi­cles.

Only a day af­ter it be­gan, the blaze near the town of Par­adise had grown to nearly 110 square miles 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 157,000. Evac­u­a­tion or­ders in­cluded the en­tire city of Mal­ibu, which is home to 13,000, 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 amid 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 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 util­ity’s fil­ing was first re­ported by KQED News.

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 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, 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.

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 pullup 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.

Of­fi­cials said the five peo­ple who whose bod­ies were dis­cov­ered in their cars could not im­me­di­ately be iden­ti­fied. They did not say how the sixth per­son died.

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 truck, 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.

Con­cerned friends and fam­ily posted anx­ious mes­sages on Twit­ter and other sites, say­ing they were look­ing for loved ones, par­tic­u­larly se­niors 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.

For one des­per­ate day, Dawn John­son anx­iously waited for news of her fa­ther Richard Wayne Wil­son and his wife, Suzanne, who lived in an RV park in Par­adise that burned. The cou­ple moved from Texas to the Cal­i­for­nia foothill town about a year ago and was prob­a­bly not pre­pared for wild­fires.

They lived in an RV park in the Cal­i­for­nia foothill town and were un­likely equipped to evac­u­ate. He has late-stage can­cer and she is mostly con­fined to her bed, she said.

John­son, of In­de­pen­dence, Ore­gon, re­lied on fel­low mem­bers of the cou­ple’s Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses con­gre­ga­tion to check lo­cal shel­ters. By Fri­day af­ter­noon, she learned they had been found in nearby Chico.

“They are fine,” she said.

The As­so­ci­ated Press

RES­CUE MODE: Fire­fight­ers push a ve­hi­cle from a garage on Fri­day as a wild­fire fire burns a home in Mal­ibu, Calif. 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. With fires also burn­ing in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, state of­fi­cials put the to­tal num­ber of peo­ple forced from their homes at 157,000. Evac­u­a­tion or­ders in­cluded the en­tire city of Mal­ibu, which is home to 13,000.

The As­so­ci­ated Press

ABAN­DONED: Ve­hi­cles line the road Fri­day af­ter a wild­fire burned through Par­adise, Calif.

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