Blaze: Mas­sive, fast-mov­ing wild­fire has de­stroyed more than 6,450 homes

The Mercury News - - Front Page - By John Wool­folk, An­nie Sci­acca and Ja­son Green Staff writ­ers

BUTTE COUNTY >> Tow­er­ing flames whipped by gale-force winds and fu­eled by bone-dry brush killed at least nine peo­ple who were trapped or try­ing to flee a wild­fire that erupted with ex­plo­sive speed and in­cin­er­ated the Gold Rush town of Par­adise east of Chico, au­thor­i­ties said Fri­day.

Dozens more peo­ple re­mained un­ac­counted for as the Camp Fire con­tin­ued to burn to­ward the out­skirts of Chico in Butte County,

forc­ing more than 50,000 evac­u­a­tions and clos­ing schools for an es­ti­mated two weeks. In a flash, it be­came the most de­struc­tive fire in Cal­i­for­nia his­tory, de­stroy­ing more than 6,450 homes.

Smoke from the fire cast an orange haze over Chico and wafted south to the Bay Area where it prompted health warn­ings and the can­cel­la­tion of high school foot­ball games.

Two other fast-grow­ing crit­i­cal wild­fires in Ven­tura and Los An­ge­les coun­ties prompted more than 105,000 evac­u­a­tions, in­clud­ing celebri­ties, as the flames threat­ened Mal­ibu and burned a his­toric movie site re­cently used by the HBO se­ries “West­world.”

The apoc­a­lyp­tic scenes spread­ing across Cal­i­for­nia have reignited the state’s sec­ond con­sec­u­tive re­lent­less wild­fire sea­son, just four months after the Carr fire killed seven peo­ple in Red­ding and a lit­tle more than a year since the Wine Coun­try fires posted a death toll of more than 40.

“The mag­ni­tude of the de­struc­tion that we are see­ing is re­ally, again, un­be­liev­able and heart­break­ing, and our hearts go out to ev­ery­body who has been af­fected by this and im­pacted,” state Of­fice of Emer­gency Ser­vices Di­rec­tor Mark Ghi­lar­ducci said Fri­day.

In Butte County, Sher­iff-Coro­ner Kory L. Honea re­ported five peo­ple were found dead in or near ve­hi­cles as they tried Thurs­day to es­cape the dev­as­tated town of Par­adise. Their bod­ies were too badly burned to iden­tify yet. Four more bod­ies were dis­cov­ered later Fri­day — three out­side a struc­ture and the other in­side a house.

Ghi­lar­ducci said fire­fight­ers and of­fi­cers were so busy try­ing to fight the rapidly grow­ing in­fer­nos and evac­u­at­ing res­i­dents that they don’t yet know the ex­tent of the loss of life and prop­erty.

“Pretty much the com­mu­nity of Par­adise is de­stroyed,” said Cal Fire Capt. Scott McLean.

Sev­eral other ear­lier fires con­tin­ued to smol­der statewide, the Cal­i­for­nia De­part­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion said. The 35-acre Brushy fire in Men­do­cino County east of High­way 101 was 50 per­cent con­tained, and the 17acre Rin­con fire off High­way 9 north of Santa Cruz was 90 per­cent con­tained.

But it is the mas­sive Camp fire that burned Par­adise, 12 miles east of Chico, as well as the Hill and Woolsey fires in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia that state of­fi­cials called “crit­i­cal.”

The Camp fire started around 6:30 a.m. Thurs­day and nearly quadru­pled overnight to at least 90,000 acres Fri­day — an as­ton­ish­ing rate of growth. By night­fall, it was still only 5 per­cent con­tained. The fire scorched 140 square miles — nearly three times the size of San Fran­cisco — de­stroyed about 6,450 homes and 260 com­mer­cial build­ings and was threat­en­ing thou­sands more. The de­struc­tion topped last year’s Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa, which had de­stroyed 5,636 struc­tures, the most in state his­tory un­til this week.

Au­thor­i­ties said it was still too early to say what sparked the deadly blaze, but fire­fight­ers found “power lines down” along a PG&E trans­mis­sion line near the ori­gin of the fire, ac­cord­ing to a Bay Area News Group re­view of fire­fighter ra­dio trans­mis­sions.

Charred homes, busi­nesses and ve­hi­cles lined the streets of Par­adise Fri­day as res­i­dents who fled for their lives to evac­u­a­tion cen­ters in Chico re­called har­row­ing es­capes as the flames bore down and det­o­nated propane gas tanks.

“I’ve never seen any­thing else like it,” said Johnny Dykes, 62, who rode his mo­tor­cy­cle on side­walks to get around traf­fic and mo­tor through walls of flame that flanked the road to get to safety in Chico.

On Fri­day, burned shells of aban­doned au­to­mo­biles packed with be­long­ings sat in the mid­dle of roads in Par­adise, where brick chim­neys were all that the fire had left of many homes. The blaze also de­stroyed the his­toric Honey Run Cov­ered Bridge that con­nects Chico and Par­adise.

By Fri­day, more than 1,300 peo­ple were in shel­ters. Dozens of names were still listed as miss­ing Fri­day morn­ing on a board at the Neigh­bor­hood Church of Chico, an evac­u­a­tion shel­ter. Fam­ily mem­bers anx­iously waited for loved ones, the lucky ones ex­chang­ing hugs when they ar­rived. Oth­ers sim­ply had nowhere else to go. Many won­dered when they would be able to get back to their homes, but they also doubted there would be homes to go back to.

“We lost ev­ery­thing” — wed­ding al­bum, chil­dren’s pho­tos — said Shar­ron Met­calf, 70. “It was so fast, it was more like we had to think of ba­si­cally get­ting out and sur­viv­ing than to grab ev­ery­thing.”

She and her hus­band, Richard, had just moved from Utah five months ago to Par­adise, where they were rais­ing Ara­bian show horses on 7 1/2 acres of what she called “our ab­so­lute dream prop­erty.” He no­ticed wor­ri­some smoke around 9 a.m. Thurs­day and called 911. When he told the dis­patcher he lived in Par­adise, she told him to “get out now.”

They opened their gate to let their horses run, grabbed IDs, lap­top com­put­ers and left in their four-wheel-drive, only to hit a traf­fic jam of evac­u­at­ing neigh­bors.

The cou­ple drove over a paved bi­cy­cle path to get around some of the grid­lock as trees ex­ploded and guardrail posts caught fire. It took them five hours to es­cape and they ul­ti­mately ended up at a ho­tel in Sacra­mento, not know­ing whether their home or horses sur­vived.

In South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, the Hill fire burned 4,500 acres in Ven­tura County’s Santa Rosa Val­ley, prompt­ing evac­u­a­tion of 15,000 res­i­dents as well as the Point Mugu Naval Base and the Cal State Chan­nel Is­lands univer­sity cam­pus. Ven­tura County Fire De­part­ment spokesman Rich Mack­lin said the fire swept south­west and crossed High­way 101 in just 12 to 15 min­utes after it ig­nited. It was 15 per­cent con­tained Fri­day night.

“Ex­treme fire be­hav­ior, ex­treme winds — re­sources couldn’t even get in front of it,” Mack­lin said at a news brief­ing Fri­day. “It was all about get­ting peo­ple out of the path of the fire. We weren’t even en­gag­ing the fire.”

Ven­tura County fire spokesman Brian McGrath said that the Woolsey fire south of Simi Val­ley has charred 35,000 acres. It prompted the evac­u­a­tion of Mal­ibu, forc­ing celebri­ties like Kim Kar­dashian and Alyssa Mi­lano to flee, and burned the home of Cait­lyn Jen­ner.

In the Bay Area, smoke from the Camp fire cast a thick haze, ob­scur­ing the foothills on both sides of

the bay and prompt­ing county health of­fi­cials to warn res­i­dents to stay in­doors with the win­dows closed if pos­si­ble. An un­prece­dented three-fourths of high school foot­ball play­off games were post­poned un­til Mon­day be­cause of un­healthy air.

State of­fi­cials said that un­fa­vor­able weather con­di­tions helped fuel the rapid growth of fires up and down the state: A com­bi­na­tion of tin­der-dry veg­e­ta­tion that hasn’t seen rain in months, low hu­mid­ity and pow­er­ful, dry off­shore winds.

And the pat­tern is ex­pected to con­tinue into next week, they warned.

“We have red-flag con­di­tions, crit­i­cal fire weather across all of Cal­i­for­nia,” Cal Fire Di­rec­tor Ken Pim­lott said. “We are ba­si­cally look­ing at a very sig­nif­i­cant, dan­ger­ous weather pat­tern through this next week.”

Pim­lott said more than 6,000 fire­fight­ers are de­ployed across the state to tamp down the flames, as well as ev­ery avail­able air­craft. There are 1,860 “mu­tual aid” fire­fight­ers, many from the Bay Area, re­spond­ing from lo­cal fire de­part­ments to the fires through­out the state, with 500 fire en­gines and hun­dreds of law en­force­ment of­fi­cers.

The Cal­i­for­nia Na­tional Guard has de­ployed 185 per­son­nel pri­mar­ily to the Camp fire area to help with air­craft, satel­lite imagery and evac­u­a­tion as­sis­tance, said Ad­ju­tant Gen. David Bald­win.

But the winds and smoke hin­der the use and ef­fec­tive­ness of the air­craft, Pim­lott said. State of­fi­cials have re­quested fire­fight­ing as­sis­tance from other Western states.

Act­ing Gov. and Gov.elect Gavin New­som has de­clared states of emer­gency for Butte, Ven­tura and Los An­ge­les coun­ties, and re­quested fed­eral as­sis­tance.

State of­fi­cials said lo­cal au­thor­i­ties did their best to get the word out quickly to res­i­dents to evac­u­ate out of harm’s way, even go­ing door to door as the fire spread quickly.

Par­adise is no stranger to wild­fires — the 2008 Hum­boldt fire burned 74 homes in the com­mu­nity — and was pre­pared when the or­der came to evac­u­ate.

“But un­der­stand how quickly that fire has been spread­ing,” Pim­lott said of Thurs­day’s fire. “When the Camp fire started yes­ter­day morn­ing, it was im­me­di­ately met with 40 mph winds. That fire, from the sec­ond it started, was off to the races. It was well off to burn­ing at dan­ger­ous rates of spread. These are the kinds of con­di­tions we’re see­ing across Cal­i­for­nia.

“We are a long ways from be­ing out of the fire fight.”

The As­so­ci­ated Press con­trib­uted to this re­port. Con­tact John Wool­folk at 408-920-5782 and An­nie Sci­acca at 925-943-8073.

Aban­doned, charred cars are left on Edge­wood Lane in Par­adise on Fri­day in the area where five bod­ies were re­cov­ered ear­lier.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.