Wild­fire kills 5 peo­ple try­ing to flee in ve­hi­cles

Belleville News-Democrat - - 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

PRETTY MUCH

THE COM­MU­NITY OF PAR­ADISE IS DE­STROYED. IT’S THAT KIND OF DEV­AS­TA­TION. Capt. Scott McLean, Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion

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 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 ap- peared 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.

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.

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