5 found dead in cars as fire in­cin­er­ates N. Cal­i­for­nia town

The Trentonian (Trenton, NJ) - - FRONT PAGE - By Don Thomp­son and Gil­lian Flac­cus

PAR­ADISE >> 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 (280 square kilo­me­ters) 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.

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 (290 kilo­me­ters) 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.

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.

Kelly Lee called shel­ters look­ing for her hus­band’s 93-year-old grand­mother, Dorothy Her­rera, who was last heard from Thurs­day morn­ing. Her­rera, who lives in Par­adise with her 88-year-old hus­band, Lou, left a fran­tic voice­mail around 9:30 a.m. say­ing they needed to get out.

“We never heard from them again,” Lee said. “We’re wor­ried sick . ... They do have a car, but they both are older and can be con­fused at times.”

The miss­ing in­cluded Richard Wayne John­son and his wife, Suzanne, who lived in an RV park in Par­adise that burned, ac­cord­ing to his daugh­ter Dawn John­son of In­de­pen­dent, Ore­gon.

“He has Stage 4 prostate can­cer. She’s in her 70s and mostly con­fined to her bed due to fi­bromyal­gia,” John­son said. “I would be very sur­prised if they had gas in their car to leave.”

She said the cou­ple moved from Texas to the Cal­i­for­nia foothill town about a year ago and were prob­a­bly not pre­pared for wild­fires.

John­son said she has not been able to reach them by cell­phone, and mem­bers of the cou­ple’s Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses King­dom Hall in Par­adise told her they have not seem them at lo­cal shel­ters.

“I checked all over,” she said. “Red Cross, any­thing you can think of I’ve tried to do.”

NOAH BERGER — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Fire­fighter Jose Corona sprays wa­ter as flames from the Camp Fire con­sume a home in Ma­galia on Fri­day.

NOAH BERGER — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Aban­doned ve­hi­cles line Sky­way after a wild­fire burned through Par­adise on Fri­day.

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