PARADISE, Calif. — A Northern California wildfire that moved so fast firefighters didn’t even try to stop it killed five people, authorities said Friday as the blaze quadrupled in size after leveling much of a town of nearly 30,000 people.
Only a day after it began, the blaze near the town of Paradise had grown to nearly 110 square miles, and investigators found the dead in vehicles that were torched by the flames.
“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 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.
When Paradise was evacuated, the order set off a desperate exodus in which many motorists got struck 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.
The massive blaze that hit Paradise 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 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 Friday, Cal Fire Cpt. Bill Murphy said.
Wind in the valley calmed down, but they were still shifting and erratic along the ridgetops, with speeds of up to 45 mph (72 kph), he said.
With ash falling and the sky darkening to a menacing shade of black, 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.
“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.
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 asked Miller if she needed help. Miller at first she scoffed at the notion of getting back in a stopped car. The 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 ended up helping Miller pack up her mother and taking them to safety in Chico. It took three hours to travel the 14 miles from Paradise to Chico.
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.
About 20 of the same deputies who were helping to find and rescue people lost their own homes. The department was trying to find them temporary housing, 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.
He said ash in the air was so thick that it “looked like midnight” in the middle of the day.
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.”
In Southern California, 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.