Wild­fires rav­age both ends of Cal­i­for­nia


Even in a state hard­ened to the rav­ages of wild­fires, the in­fer­nos that raged at both ends of Cal­i­for­nia on Fri­day were over­pow­er­ing.

Mal­ibu man­sions burned. Nine peo­ple died in a re­tire­ment com­mu­nity called Par­adise, in the state’s most de­struc­tive fire ever. And in the neigh­bor­hood in Thou­sand Oaks where a gun­man had killed 12 peo­ple in a crowded bar ear­lier in the week, sur­vivors now fled the flames.

The fire-prone state was bat­tling three ma­jor fires, one in the north­ern Sierra and two west of Los An­ge­les. In the north­ern town of Par­adise, the ru­ins of houses and busi­nesses smol­dered through­out the day, and fire of­fi­cials put the to­tal of struc­tures de­stroyed at 6,713, mak­ing it the state’s most de­struc­tive fire ever. In South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, tens of thou­sands of res­i­dents fled their homes and jammed onto high­ways. Ex­otic lemurs and par­rots were packed up and car­ried away to safety as fires ringed the Los An­ge­les Zoo in Grif­fith Park.

“It’s phe­nom­e­nal how fast the fire spread,” said Scott McLean, deputy chief of the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion, said of the fire in Par­adise, where he had res­cued a lone, older woman rolling down a road in her wheel­chair Thurs­day. As fire­fight­ers strug­gled to con­tain the flames, and as a thick blan­ket of smoke turned day into night, McLean said he feared the death toll would rise higher. Aban­doned cars on a cen­tral street were ev­i­dence that many had fled the fe­ro­ciously fast fire on foot.

It was too early to know how many of them made it out of Par­adise alive.

In Thou­sand Oaks, there was grief com­pounded by grief. Just as res­i­dents were com­ing to terms with a shooting at a coun­try mu­sic bar, the wind-driven fires swept thou­sands of res­i­dents from their homes.

Dy­lan McNey, a 22-year-old car­pen­ter, was a triple sur­vivor. McNey has lived through two mass shoot­ings just a year apart: first, at the county mu­sic fes­ti­val in Las Ve­gas, then once again at the Border­line Bar & Grill in Thou­sand Oaks this week.

McNey used to work as a se­cu­rity guard at the Border­line and said he is there at least a cou­ple of times a week.

Although his friends had all sur­vived the Las Ve­gas shooting, a woman he helped to es­cape even­tu­ally died of her wounds, he said. Six of his friends were killed at the Border­line shooting.

On Thurs­day af­ter­noon, he gath­ered at his house with sev­eral friends so they could be to­gether in their grief. When they re­ceived an evac­u­a­tion or­der, his mother and sis­ter left. But McNey de­cided to stay put, along with his fa­ther, a for­mer fire­fighter, and watched the fire from their back­yard.

“We had a good view from where it was start­ing,” he said.

Bill Vano, a Thou­sand Oaks res­i­dent who was evac­u­ated as the fire ap­proached, said he felt whip­sawed.

“It’s a lot real fast – I don’t know how to process it,” Vano said. “I’m con­fused, walk­ing around in a fog right now.”

In Par­adise, emer­gency crews looked for the miss­ing, an en­deavor com­pli­cated by the fire’s con­tin­ued strength, said Me­gan McMann, a co­or­di­na­tor with the Butte County Sher­iff’s Of­fice.

“There are a lot of ar­eas where the fire is ac­tive that we can’t ac­cess,” McMann said.

The bod­ies of five peo­ple were found “in ve­hi­cles that were over­come” by the flames, Sher­iff Kory L. Honea of Butte County said, adding that they had been so badly burned, they could not im­me­di­ately be iden­ti­fied. Four more bod­ies were found Fri­day, but de­tails of their deaths were not im­me­di­ately clear.

Brian Robert­son, who was sleep­ing in a trailer near the town of Ma­galia, tes­ti­fied to the speed of the fire. He cred­ited his pit bull, BB, for sav­ing him.

“She woke me up and the whole world was on fire around us,” said Robert­son, who be­lieves his trailer was de­stroyed.

Wild­fires like th­ese have long been a threat in Cal­i­for­nia, but over the last sev­eral years they have had devastating im­pacts never be­fore seen in the state. Fire­fight­ers con­stantly re­peat that the state has reached a “new nor­mal” of nearly year­round fires.

Over the sum­mer, a sig­nif­i­cant sec­tion of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia was burned by the largest fire on record, the Men­do­cino Com­plex Fire. And last year the state’s most de­struc­tive fire on record, the Tubbs Fire, tore through Sonoma and Napa coun­ties, killing 22 peo­ple and de­stroy­ing thou­sands of homes.

Cal­i­for­nia’s gov­er­nor­elect, Gavin New­som, de­clared a state of emer­gency Fri­day in Los An­ge­les and Ven­tura coun­ties. On Thurs­day, he de­clared an emer­gency in north­ern Butte County and asked Pres­i­dent Donald Trump for fed­eral as­sis­tance.

Many fires in re­cent years have been caused by downed power lines; of­fi­cials say they are still in­ves­ti­gat­ing the causes of the cur­rent ones. Pa­cific Gas & Elec­tric Co. told state reg­u­la­tors it ex­pe­ri­enced an out­age on an elec­tri­cal trans­mis­sion line near Par­adise about 15 min­utes be­fore the blaze broke out, the As­so­ci­ated Press re­ported. The com­pany said it later no­ticed dam­age to a trans­mis­sion tower near the town.

More than 1.4 mil­lion acres have burned so far this year in the state, said McLean, the Cal Fire deputy chief, roughly equal to the to­tals from the very de­struc­tive year of 2017.

And while the strong winds known as Santa Ana con­trib­uted to the big­ger fires, the link with cli­mate change is in­ex­tri­ca­ble, said Park Wil­liams, a bio­cli­ma­tol­o­gist at Columbia Univer­sity’s La­mon­tDo­herty Earth Ob­ser­va­tory.

“It’s once again in Cal­i­for­nia the per­fect recipe for fire,” Wil­liams said. “You get a big Santa Ana wind event in the fall be­fore the first win­ter rain comes. You’ve got a lot of peo­ple who are al­ways cre­at­ing po­ten­tial fires by light­ing fires ei­ther on pur­pose or on ac­ci­dent.

“And then be­hind the scenes of all of this, you’ve got tem­per­a­tures that are about 2 to 3 de­grees Fahren­heit warmer now than they would’ve been with­out global warm­ing.”


A wild­fire burns a home near Mal­ibu Lake in Mal­ibu, Calif., on Fri­day. The en­tire pop­u­la­tion of Mal­ibu was or­dered to evac­u­ate.


Chico Fire and Res­cue Capt. John Kelso jokes with Par­adise Skilled Nurs­ing home res­i­dent Kather­ine Schaf­fer as she waits to be evac­u­ated Thurs­day from the fires in Par­adise, Calif.

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