Wildfire grows to 18,000 acres as Paradise residents flee on foot
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.”
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.
Vehicles that were burned as residents of Paradise scrambled to leave lie abandoned on Pearson Road in Paradise on Thursday.