A wildfire that moved so fast that firefighters couldn’t hope to stop it quadrupled in size Nov. 9 after destroying several thousand buildings and leveling much of a Northern California town of nearly 30,000 people, authorities said.
Only a day after it began, the fire near the town of Paradise had grown to nearly 110 square miles and authorities said it had claimed lives, although they offered no specific number or any details.
“There was really no firefight involved,” said Capt. Scott McLean of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, explaining that crews gave up attacking the flames and instead helped people evacuate. “These firefighters were in the rescue mode all day yesterday.”
The entire town was ordered evacuated, setting off a desperate exodus in which many motorists got stuck in gridlocked traffic and abandoned their vehicles to flee 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.
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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.
With fires burning in Northern and Southern California, the director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services put the number of people forced from their homes at 157,000.
The massive blaze that hit Paradise spread north Nov. 9, 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 the edge of Chico, a city of 90,000 people. Firefighters were able to stop the fire at the edge of the city, where evacuation orders remained in place Nov. 9, Cal Fire Cpt. Bill Murphy said.
The winds calmed down in the valley, but they were still shifting and erratic, with speeds of up to 45 mph along ridge tops, he said.
With ash falling and the sky darkening to a menacing shade of black, evacuees from Paradise sat in stunned silence Nov. 9 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.
“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.
Chico police officer John Barker and his partner evacuated several elderly people from an apartment complex.
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“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.
In Southern California, about two-thirds of the city of Malibu was ordered evacuated early Nov. 9 as a ferocious wildfire roared toward the beachside community that is home to about 13,000 residents.
The Los Angeles County Fire Department tweeted that the fire raging through the Santa Monica Mountains was headed to the ocean. Another fire was burning farther west in Ventura County, also moving toward the ocean.
The National Weather Service issued extreme fire danger warnings in many areas of the state, saying low humidity and strong winds were expected to continue through the evening.