In what officials described as “mass devastation,” at least 1,000 structures were lost Thursday when a fire swept through the Northern California town of Paradise, forcing residents to run for their lives.
The Butte County fire exploded from 10 acres to more than 10,000 acres in a matter of hours, taking direct aim at the town of 27,000 known as a popular retirement community.
“It has destroyed the town,” said Scott McLean, a spokesman with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. By Thursday evening, it had charred 20,000 acres and left 15,000 structures under threat.
As people raced to safety, roads became choked with traffic, forcing some to flee on foot as the fire engulfed nearby homes and buildings. One hospital was evacuated — its patients were taken to nearby medical facilities — and parts of its campus were damaged by the flames.
At least two firefighters and multiple citizens have been injured, though officials would not say if anyone has died.
Named the Camp fire because it began near Camp Creek Road in Butte County, the blaze was first reported about 6:30 a.m., according to a Cal Fire spokesman. By midday, smoke had blanketed the town in darkness.
“It’s been nighttime for the last six hours, the smoke has come down so low and so heavy,” McLean said.
At a Red Cross shelter in Oroville, two women described their harrowing escape from a burning mobile home park in Paradise. Soon after, the trauma hit Patsy Jacobs, 62, and she began to sob.
“It’s all right,” said her neighbor, Jane Palmer, 77. “We’re alive.”
The rapid spread of the blaze spurred acting California Gov. Gavin Newsom — who is filling in while Gov. Jerry Brown is out of state — to declare a state of emergency for Butte County. Hours after the Camp fire began, the same gusty winds caused another wildfire to erupt in Southern California, threatening homes in Ventura County.
In Butte County, residents in several towns hugging California 70 near the Plumas National Forest were ordered to evacuate and the highway was closed. In addition to Paradise, people in Concow, Pulga, Magalia, Butte Creek Canyon and Butte Valley were told to leave their homes, according to the Butte County Sheriff’s Office. Butte College was closed and turned into a command center for firefighters and other emergency workers.
Multiple evacuation centers were opened in churches and on fairgrounds in nearby towns. Late Thursday, evacuation orders were expanded west to the city limits of Chico, according to the Butte County Sheriff’s Office. Officers were working through requests to check the welfare of some 400 people, down from an initial 600-plus such requests, authorities said.
Thousands of motorists spilled onto roadways, following recently redesigned evacuation routes intended to make it easier for them to escape. Yet many wound up sitting in gridlock or fled their vehicles in panic. Emergency crews tried to bump the abandoned cars out of the way, then called for bulldozers to clear a path.
“I saw a steady line of cars, bumper to bumper, trying to get out of Paradise,” said Shaaron Vogel, 67, a member of the nursing faculty at Butte College. “Watching the drivers that were trying to get away was horrifying because you could see their faces and how scared they were. It really brings it home how many lives it’s affected. And so fast.”
On social media, people trying to evacuate described being stuck in their cars, watching as nearby homes burned. The sky turned black with ash and smoke. Some abandoned their vehicles, creating yet another obstacle for those attempting to escape.
Gilbert and Susanne Orr, who fled their home in Concow for the safety of a Red Cross shelter in Oroville, said they ended up sitting in stop-and-start traffic as sparks from the fire blew across their car. To make the situation worse, the driver’s-side window on their Trans Am wouldn’t close.
“It was burning on both sides of the road, and the wind was blowing and it’s just blowing right across the car,” said Susanne, 68.
“We couldn't get the people to move,” said Gilbert, 71. “We were so scared. Everybody was so scared.”
The couple’s home survived a forest fire in 2008, but they said they don’t think it will survive this one. By the time they left, taking little else with them except a young hound dog named Duke, there were flames by their woodshed and their pasture was ablaze.
Kim Benn, 49, said she was so certain that she was going to die, trapped in her car with flames on both sides while trying to get out of Paradise, that she called her mother to say goodbye.
The fire had caught her by surprise. It was miles away — at least according to the TV news — when what sounded like rain hitting the roof caused her to look outside. Chunks of burned wood, still smoking, were falling from the sky. Ten minutes later, a neighbor banged on her door, yelling that it was time to leave. She grabbed her cats and began to drive out through thickening smoke.
Officials in Butte County said the growing fire posed a serious threat. Authorities said it was too early to begin to tally the structure losses. Nor could they confirm the stories of injuries and fatalities that began to emerge as the day wore on.
“It’s bad,” Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea told the Chico Enterprise-Record. “We’re trying to get as many people out as quickly as possible and save as many lives as we can.”
Greg Rader, 55, who sought shelter in Oroville, said he met a woman there whose husband and 29-year-old son had died in the fire. Rader said that his own house was gone and that he’d had no opportunity to take anything, not even his four cats. “It was either leave now, or not be able to leave,” he said.
“I’ve been in Paradise since 2005, and we’ve had fires every year, but I’ve never seen a fire like this,” he said. “Anywhere. Ever.”
Firefighters have had a difficult time with the dynamic and fast-moving blaze, Cal Fire spokesman Rick Carhart said.
“There’s a pretty good wind on the fire, and it’s in an area where access is extremely difficult,” he said.
The fire cut off power to about 34,000 customers in Butte and Plumas counties, according to a spokesman for Pacific Gas & Electric Co. The company had notified thousands of customers Wednesday that it was considering shutting off power in eight counties in Northern California as a safety measure in preparation for a forecast of high winds and low humidity — a recipe for extreme fire danger. But a spokesman said PG&E has not taken this step yet.
The utility did shut off natural gas lines to 12,000 customers in Paradise, officials said.
Air quality officials warned residents in the Bay Area they would probably see and smell smoke from the fire that was burning far to the northeast.
The National Weather Service issued red-flag warnings for fire danger in many areas of the state, saying low humidity and strong winds were expected to continue through Friday evening.