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APTOPIX California Wildfires

Devastating wildfire blazes through California town: 'The community of Paradise is destroyed'

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Updated November 09, 2018 09:14 PM EST

BY DON THOMPSON AND GILLIAN FLACCUS, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

PARADISE, Calif. (AP) — A powerful 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, including five who were found in their burned-out vehicles.

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.

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, 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.

Woman shares terrifying video of escape from Paradise, California, wildfire

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.

At one burned-out house, flames still smoldered inside what appeared 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.

California Wildires
A piece of art sits outside the burned remains of home Friday, Nov. 9, 2018, that was destroyed by a wildfire that swept through the area Thursday, in Paradise, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

"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.

Officials said the five people who whose bodies were discovered in their cars could not immediately be identified. They did not say how the sixth person died.

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. Herrera, who lives in Paradise with her 88-year-old husband, Lou, left a frantic voicemail around 9:30 a.m. saying they needed to get out.

"We never heard from them again," Lee said. "We're worried sick. ... They do have a car, but they both are older and can be confused at times."

California Wildfire
A burned out car sits on the side of the road in Paradise, Calif., Friday, Nov. 9, 2018, after a wildfire swept through the area. (AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus)

For one desperate day, Dawn Johnson anxiously waited for news of her father Richard Wayne Wilson and his wife, Suzanne, who lived in an RV park in Paradise that burned. The couple moved from Texas to the California foothill town about a year ago and was probably not prepared for wildfires.

They lived in an RV park in the California foothill town and were unlikely equipped to evacuate. He has late-stage cancer and she is mostly confined to her bed, she said.

Johnson, of Independence, Oregon, relied on fellow members of the couple's Jehovah's Witnesses congregation to check local shelters. By Friday afternoon, she learned they had been found in nearby Chico.

"They are fine," she said.
___

Associated Press writers Paul Elias in Paradise and Jocelyn Gecker, Janie Har, Daisy Nguyen, Olga R. Rodriguez, Sudhin Thanawala and Juliet Williams in San Francisco contributed to this report.

By DON THOMPSON and JOCELYN GECKER, Associated Press

PARADISE, Calif. (AP) — A fast-moving wildfire that ravaged a Northern California town Thursday sent residents racing to escape on roads that turned into tunnels of fire as thick smoke darkened the daytime sky, wiping out what a Cal Fire official said was a couple of thousand structures.

"We were surrounded by fire, we were driving through fire on each side of the road," said police officer Mark Bass, who lives in the hard-hit town of Paradise and works in neighboring Chico. He evacuated his family and then returned to the fire to help rescue several disabled residents, including a man trying to carry his bedridden wife to safety. "It was just a wall of fire on each side of us, and we could hardly see the road in front of us."

Harrowing tales of escape and heroic rescues emerged from Paradise, where the entire community of 27,000 was ordered to evacuate. Witnesses reported seeing homes, supermarkets, businesses, restaurants, schools and a retirement home up in flames.

"Pretty much the community of Paradise is destroyed, it's that kind of devastation," said Cal Fire Capt. Scott McLean late Thursday. He estimated that a couple of thousand structures were destroyed in the town about 180 miles (290 kilometers) northeast of San Francisco.

Meanwhile, portions of Southern California remained under siege early Friday as two large fires threatened numerous Ventura County communities. The National Weather Service issued red-flag warnings for fire dangers in many areas of the state, saying low humidity and strong winds were expected to continue through the evening

"We're working very hard to get people out. The message I want to get out is: If you can evacuate, you need to evacuate."
Sheriff Kory Honea, Butte County

The fire in Paradise was reported shortly after daybreak in a rural area. By nightfall, it had consumed more than 28 square miles (73 square kilometers) and firefighters had no containment on the blaze, McLean said.

In the midst of the chaos, officials said they could not provide figures on the number of wounded, but County Cal Fire Chief Darren Read said at a news conference that at least two firefighters and multiple residents were injured.

"It's a very dangerous and very serious situation," Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said. "We're working very hard to get people out. The message I want to get out is: If you can evacuate, you need to evacuate." Several evacuation centers were set up in nearby towns.

Residents described fleeing their homes and then getting stuck on gridlocked roads as flames approached, sparking explosions and toppling utility poles.

"Things started exploding," said resident Gina Oviedo. "People started getting out of their vehicles and running."

Woman shares terrifying video of escape from Paradise, California, wildfire

Many abandoned their cars on the side of the road, fleeing on foot. Cars and trucks, some with trailers attached, were left on the roadside as evacuees ran for their lives, said Bass, the police officer. "They were abandoned because traffic was so bad, backed up for hours."

Thick gray smoke and ash filled the sky above Paradise and could be seen from miles away.

"It was absolutely dark," said resident Mike Molloy, who said he made a split decision based on the wind to leave Thursday morning, packing only the minimum and joining a sea of other vehicles.

At the hospital in Paradise, more than 60 patients were evacuated to other facilities. Some buildings caught fire and were damaged but the main facility, Adventist Health Feather River Hospital, was not, spokeswoman Jill Kinney said.

Some of the patients were initially turned around during their evacuation because of gridlocked traffic and later airlifted to other hospitals, along with some staff, Kinney said.

Four hospital employees were briefly trapped in the basement and rescued by California Highway Patrol officers, Kinney said.

"Pretty much the community of Paradise is destroyed, it's that kind of devastation."
Capt. Scott McLean, Cal Fire

Concerned friends and family posted frantic messages on Twitter and other sites saying they were looking for loved ones, particularly seniors who lived at retirement homes or alone.

Chico police officer John Barker and his partner evacuated several seniors from an apartment complex.

"Most of them were immobile with walkers, or spouses that were bed-ridden, so we were trying to get additional units to come and try and help us, just taking as many as we could," he said, describing the community as having "a lot of elderly, a lot of immobile people, some low-income with no vehicles."

Kelly Lee called shelters looking for her husband's 93-year-old grandmother, Dorothy Herrera, who was last heard from on Thursday morning. Herrera, who lives in Paradise with her 88-year-old husband Lou Herrera, left a frantic voicemail at around 9:30 a.m. saying they needed to get out.

"We never heard from them again," Lee said. "We're worried sick. ... They do have a car, but they both are older and can be confused at times."

Acting California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in the area and requested a federal emergency declaration, saying that high winds and dry brush presented ongoing danger.

The fire in Southern California was being whipped up Thursday evening by powerful winds that pushed it through canyons and to the edge of Camarillo Springs and Cal State Channel Islands, both of which were evacuated, The Los Angeles Times reported. The blaze broke out in the Hill Canyon area and in just 12 minutes jumped the 101 Freeway. By Thursday evening, it had scorched up to 7,000 acres and sent residents of more than 1,200 homes fleeing.

Fire officials said they expected it to burn all the way to the ocean. Television reports showed several homes on fire in the Oak Park community. Authorities shut down the 101 Freeway in both directions at Camarillo Springs Road.

___

Associated Press writers Jocelyn Gecker, Paul Elias, Janie Har, Daisy Nguyen, Olga R. Rodriguez, Sudhin Thanawala and Juliet Williams in San Francisco, Sophia Bollag in Sacramento, Michelle A. Monroe in Phoenix and Jennifer Sinco Kelleher in Honolulu contributed to this report.

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