PARADISE, Calif. — 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 neighbouring 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 kilometres) northeast of San Francisco.
The fire was reported shortly after daybreak in a rural area. By nightfall, it had consumed more than 28 square miles (73 square kilometres) 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 centres 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.”
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 grey 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 …read more