An uncontrolled wildfire raced across the Butte County community of Paradise Thursday afternoon, destroying a large swath of downtown and sending residents fleeing on foot past burning homes, businesses and a local church.
“The whole town’s on fire,” said Scott Lotter, a town councilman who evacuated with his family. “It’s pretty grim.”
By Thursday evening, the Camp Fire had cut from east to west across town, forcing a chaotic evacuation of most of Paradise’s 27,000 residents. It grew from 1,000 acres in the morning to 18,000 by dusk, and remained completely uncontained, according to Cal Fire officials.
Desperate residents described a horrifying scene of pandemonium and fear along evacuation routes clogged with traffic and abandoned cars. On one stretch of road, a California Highway Patrol cruiser with its airbags deployed stood empty and damaged, surrounded by other vacated vehicles, some still burning.
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“There were flames to the left of me and flames to the right,” said Wendell Whitmore, a 62-year-old resident who tried to drive out of Paradise on Bille Road at around 9 a.m. “The flames were up in the trees, all the houses were on fire. The fire was three feet from my car. The rubber around the windows was melting. That’s when I decided to get out.”
Cal Fire officials said that all lanes of Highway 99 were converted for northbound traffic to alleviate congestion during the height of the evacuation. Roads were clear by evening but many closures remained in effect.
The Camp Fire was reported to authorities shortly after 6:30 a.m., but its cause remains unknown. High winds and dry conditions propelled its rapid growth, and Cal Fire officials warned there was a chance it could reach Chico, six miles from Paradise, though winds that gusted at up to 50 mph earlier in the day were expected to die down to single digits overnight.
“Right now, Mother Nature is in charge,” Cal Fire spokesman Bryce Bennett said.
Butte County Fire Chief Darren Reed said two firefighters and multiple civilians had been injured. Emergency personnel reported to dispatchers that multiple people had been burned fleeing the blaze, including an elderly woman who received third-degree burns. No deaths have yet been reported.
Adventist Health Feather River Hospital was evacuated and some auxiliary buildings – including a cardiology services building – caught fire. Fire crews were attempting to douse that blaze Thursday afternoon, but many homes nearby burned uncontested. In front of the hospital, gurneys and equipment scattered the lot, discarded as patients were hastily taken to safety.
Members of the police and fire departments evacuated a station in town and were operating out of a parking lot as the fire approached.
Lotter, the councilman, said a grocery store, a restaurant and multiple other businesses had been burned. He said he saw multiple homes burning near Skyway, the main commercial corridor, and multiple utility poles were tilted or broken throughout Paradise.
“We know there is lots and lots of damage,” said Lotter. “It’s devastating.”
With Gov. Jerry Brown out of the state in Austin, Acting Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in the afternoon. California also received a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help fund the firefight.
The Camp Fire is the latest reminder that urban areas in California are becoming increasing susceptible to wildfire. Hundreds of structures were damaged and eight people were killed in the Carr Fire near Redding earlier this year. A series of blazes near Santa Rosa last year destroyed hundreds of homes.
Whitmore said he abandoned his 2005 Subaru Outback just as another motorist backed into him and the fire began burning under the hood of his car. He and others ran toward Skyway looking for safety as police shouted orders to get out.
By then, he said, it had taken him two hours to drive three quarters of a mile on two-lane Bille Road, where he estimated 40 cars were abandoned in front of him and another 150 were behind him.
When he made it to Skyway on foot, he saw thousands of cars trying to drive six across to get out.
“There were embers on the road, it was so intense, crackling,” he said.
As he walked, a women he had never seen before drove up in a pickup truck.
“She pulled over and told me to get in,” Whitmore said, adding that she also picked up nine other stranded motorists whose vehicles had been trapped. “She took me all the way to Chico. I have no idea who she was.”
Gene Mapa’s home overlooks a canyon on the north side of Paradise, on the other side of town from where the fire began. He said he didn’t expect the fire to reach his street. But by mid-morning, “the whole town was burning.”
Mapa watched as his neighbor’s home caught fire. Then he fled.
“I couldn’t take the heat or the smoke anymore,” he said. “And hearing the roar of the fire ... the noise, the roar, it was just freaky.”
Mapa grabbed some photographs and a family bible. But he left his late wife’s remains behind. She died in March.
“They’ll go up with the house,” he said. “I’m sure my house is gone.”
When Taylor Bogue, 28, looked outside her home Thursday morning, she a saw terrible orange glow in the sky.
She quickly gathered up her two daughters, Penelope, 2, and Violet, 1, and loaded them in the car. Normally, she said she doesn’t like to drive because of a problem with the optic nerve in one of her eyes. But she said the fire left her no choice.
“It was so hot. You could feel it,” she said nearly shouting over the gusting winds outside the Oroville Nazarene Church, one of three evacuation centers in Butte County. “It was horrible.”