Paradise lost as California wildfires force 157,000 to flee for their lives
PARADISE, CALIF. — 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 285 square kilometres 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 centre.
Rural areas fared little better. Many homes have propane tanks that were exploding amid the flames.
McLean estimated that the lost buildings numbered in the thousands in Paradise, about 290 kilometres 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.
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,” said police officer.
Firefighters try to keep flames from spreading to an apartment complex in Paradise.