At least 9 dead as fire incinerates California town
Evacuation order sets off desperate exodus that trapped many motorists
PARADISE, Calif. — A fierce wildfire in Northern California 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. Nine people died in what quickly grew into the state's most destructive fire in at least a century.
Only a day after it began, the blaze near the town of Paradise had grown to nearly 140 square miles, had destroyed more than 6,700 structures — almost all of them homes — 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 about 250,000. Evacuation orders included the entire city of Malibu, which is home to 13,000, among them some of Hollywood's biggest stars.
President Donald Trump issued an emergency declaration providing federal funds for Butte, Ventura and Los Angeles counties.
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, 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, 180 miles northeast of San Francisco.
“Pretty much the community of Paradise is destroyed. It's that kind of devastation,” he said.
While the cause of the fire wasn't known, Pacific Gas & Electric Company told state regulators it experienced an outage on an electrical transmission line near Paradise about 15 minutes before the blaze broke out. The company said it later noticed damage to a transmission tower near the town. The utility's filing was first reported by KQED News.
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.
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.