Wild­fire grows to 18,000 acres as Par­adise res­i­dents flee on foot

The Modesto Bee - - Front Page - BY RYAN LIL­LIS, RYAN SA­BALOW AND MIKE MC­GOUGH rlil­lis@sacbee.com

An un­con­trolled wild­fire raced across the Butte County com­mu­nity of Par­adise Thurs­day af­ter­noon, de­stroy­ing a large swath of down­town and send­ing res­i­dents flee­ing on foot past burn­ing homes, busi­nesses and a lo­cal church.

“The whole town’s on fire,” said Scott Lot­ter, a town coun­cil­man who evac­u­ated with his fam­ily. “It’s pretty grim.”

By Thurs­day evening, the Camp Fire had cut from east to west across town, forc­ing a chaotic evac­u­a­tion of most of Par­adise’s 27,000 res­i­dents. It grew from 1,000 acres in the morn­ing to 18,000 by dusk and re­mained com­pletely un­con­tained, ac­cord­ing to Cal Fire of­fi­cials.

Des­per­ate res­i­dents de­scribed a hor­ri­fy­ing scene of pan­de­mo­nium and fear along evac­u­a­tion routes clogged with traf­fic and aban­doned cars. On one stretch of road, a Cal­i­for­nia High­way Pa­trol cruiser with its airbags de­ployed stood empty and dam­aged, sur­rounded by other va­cated ve­hi­cles, some still burn­ing.

“There were flames to the left of me and flames to the right,” said Wen­dell Whit­more, a 62year-old res­i­dent who tried to drive out of Par­adise on Bille Road at around 9 a.m. “The flames were up in the trees, all the houses were on fire. The fire was three feet from my car. The rub­ber around the win­dows was melt­ing. That’s when I de­cided to get out.”

Cal Fire of­fi­cials said that all lanes of High­way 99 were con­verted for north­bound traf­fic to al­le­vi­ate con­ges­tion dur­ing the height of the evac­u­a­tion. Roads were clear by evening, but many clo­sures re­mained in ef­fect.

The Camp Fire was re­ported to au­thor­i­ties shortly af­ter 6:30 a.m., but its cause re­mains un­known. High winds and dry con­di­tions pro­pelled its rapid growth, and Cal Fire of­fi­cials warned there was a chance it could reach Chico, 6 miles from Par­adise, though winds that gusted at up to 50 mph ear­lier in the day were ex­pected to die down to sin­gle dig­its overnight.

“Right now, Mother Na­ture is in charge,” Cal Fire spokesman Bryce Ben­nett said.

Butte County Fire Chief Dar­ren Reed said two fire­fight­ers and mul­ti­ple civil­ians had been in­jured. Emer­gency per­son­nel re­ported to dis­patch­ers that mul­ti­ple peo­ple had been burned flee­ing the blaze, in­clud­ing an el­derly woman who re­ceived third-de­gree burns. No deaths have been re­ported.

With Gov. Jerry Brown out of the state in Austin, Lt. Gov. Gavin New­som, act­ing gover­nor and the gover­nor-elect, de­clared a state of emer­gency in the af­ter­noon. Cal­i­for­nia also re­ceived a grant from the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency to help fund the fire­fight.

Whit­more said he aban­doned his 2005 Subaru Out­back just as an­other motorist backed into him and the fire be­gan burn­ing un­der the hood of his car. He and oth­ers ran to­ward Sky­way look­ing for safety as po­lice shouted or­ders to get out.

When he made it to Sky­way on foot, he saw thou­sands of cars try­ing to get out.

“There were em­bers on the road, it was so in­tense, crack­ling,” he said.

As he walked, a woman he had never seen be­fore drove up in a pickup truck.

“She pulled over and told me to get in,” Whit­more said, adding that she also picked up nine other stranded mo­torists. “She took me all the way to Chico. I have no idea who she was.”

DAVID LIT­TLE Chico En­ter­prise-Record via AP

A mas­sive plume of smoke from the Camp Fire, burn­ing in the Feather River Canyon near Par­adise, wafts over the Sacra­mento Val­ley as seen from Chico on Thurs­day. Au­thor­i­ties in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia have or­dered manda­tory evac­u­a­tions.

HEC­TOR AMEZCUA hamezcua@sacbee.com

Ve­hi­cles that were burned as res­i­dents of Par­adise scram­bled to leave lie aban­doned on Pear­son Road in Par­adise on Thurs­day.

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