N. Cal­i­for­nia wild­fire claims 5 lives and quadru­ples in size

The Times Herald (Norristown, PA) - - WEATHER - By Don Thomp­son and Paul Elias

PAR­ADISE >> A North­ern Cal­i­for­nia wild­fire that moved so fast fire­fight­ers didn’t even try to stop it killed five peo­ple, au­thor­i­ties said Fri­day as the blaze quadru­pled in size af­ter lev­el­ing much of a town of nearly 30,000 peo­ple.

Only a day af­ter it be­gan, the blaze near the town of Par­adise had grown to nearly 110 square miles (285 square kilo­me­ters), and in­ves­ti­ga­tors found the dead in ve­hi­cles that were torched by the flames.

“There was re­ally no fire­fight in­volved,” said Capt. Scott McLean of the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion, 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.

When Par­adise was evac­u­ated, the or­der set off a des­per­ate ex­o­dus in which many mo­torists got struck 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 (290 kilo­me­ters) north­east of San Fran­cisco.

“Pretty much the com­mu­nity of Par­adise is de­stroyed. It’s that kind of dev­as­ta­tion,” he said.

The mas­sive blaze that hit Par­adise 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 the edge of Chico, a city of 90,000 peo­ple. Fire­fight­ers were able to stop the fire at the edge of the city, where evac­u­a­tion or­ders re­mained in place Fri­day, Cal Fire Cpt. Bill Mur­phy said.

Wind in the val­ley calmed down, but they were still shift­ing and er­ratic along the ridgetops, with speeds of up to 45 mph (72 kph), he said.

With ash fall­ing and the sky dark­en­ing to a men­ac­ing shade of black, 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.

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.

RICHARD VO­GEL - THE AP

Evac­uees from a wild­fire rest on cots and blan­kets sup­plied by the Red Cross in the gym­na­sium at Taft Char­ter High School in the Wood­land Hills sec­tion of Los An­ge­les on Fri­day, Nov. 9.

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