Cal­i­for­nia wild­fire kills 5 try­ing to flee in ve­hi­cles

The Sun News - - Front Page - BY DON THOMP­SON AND PAUL ELIAS

Five peo­ple were found dead in their burned-out ve­hi­cles af­ter a North­ern Cal­i­for­nia wild­fire 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.

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.

Thou­sand Oaks, Calif., a city reel­ing from the tragedy of a mass shoot­ing, was un­der a siege of a dif­fer­ent sort Fri­day as rag­ing wild­fires on both sides of the city forced evac­u­a­tions and shut down part of the main free­way to town.

Flames driven by pow­er­ful winds torched dozens of hill­side homes in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, burn­ing parts of tony Cal­abasas and man­sions in Mal­ibu and forc­ing tens of thou­sands of peo­ple to flee as the fire marched across the Santa Mon­ica Moun­tains to­ward the sea. The cause of the blazes was not known.

For Thou­sand Oaks, which had been con­sid­ered one of the safest cities in the na­tion be­fore a gun­man mas­sa­cred 12 peo­ple at a coun­try mu­sic bar, the spasm of vi­o­lence jolted the city’s sense of se­cu­rity. En­croach­ing flames, de­spite the nearcon­stant threat of fire in the bone-dry state, pre­sented an en­tirely dif­fer­ent haz­ard.

“It’s dev­as­tat­ing. It’s like ‘wel­come to hell,’ ” res­i­dent Cyn­thia Ball, said about the duel dis­as­ters out­side the teen cen­ter that is serv­ing as a shel­ter for evac­uees. “I don’t even know what to say. It’s like we’re all walk­ing around kind of in a trance.”

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.

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 Capt. 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.

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.

NEAL WA­TERS TNS

The Camp Fire rages through the town of Par­adise, Calif., in Butte County late Thurs­day. Dozens of busi­nesses and homes were de­stroyed as the fire moved faster than fire­fight­ers could re­act to it.

AL SEIB TNS

Fire smol­ders in a de­stroyed home in Thou­sand Oaks, Calif., on Fri­day morn­ing.

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