Paradise was burning Thursday afternoon, leaving thousands of residents of the Northern California community fleeing on foot and trapped in buildings as flames from the fast-moving Camp Fire overtook city streets.
“The whole town’s on fire,” said Scott Lotter, a town councilman who evacuated with his family. “It’s pretty grim,” he said.
Desperate residents described a horrifying scene of chaos along evacuation routes clogged with traffic and abandoned cars.
“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.”
The Camp Fire was reported to authorities shortly after 6:30 a.m. and had exploded to an estimated 20,000 acres by 7:06 p.m., fueled by steady winds and dry grass. Cal Fire officials said they had no control over the blaze and predicted it could reach the city limits of Chico, six miles from Paradise.
“Right now, Mother Nature is in charge,” Cal Fire spokesman Bryce Bennett said.
Emergency personnel reported to dispatchers that multiple people had been burned fleeing the blaze, including an elderly woman who received third-degree burns. More than 60 people were reported to be trapped inside a Walgreen’s in town, waiting for buses to shuttle them to safety. Adventist Health Feather River Hospital was evacuated and some auxiliary buildings - including a cardiology services building - had caught fire.
A burned California Highway Patrol cruiser was abandoned in town, its airbags deployed.
Much of the town’s downtown was gone. Lotter, the councilman, said a grocery store, a restaurant and multiple other business had been damaged. He saw multiple homes burning near Skyway, the main commercial corridor. Members of the police and fire departments evacuated a station in town and were operating out of a parking lot as the fire approached.
Utility poles collapsed throughout town, adding to a chaotic scene as Paradise’s 26,000 residents fled.
“We know there is lots and lots of damage,” said Lotter. “It’s devastating.”
The Camp Fire was 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 Church of the Nazarene, one of three evacuation centers in Butte County. “It was horrible.”
She has no idea if her house is still standing.
Fellow evacuees Liz and Glenn Jenkins have little doubts their Concow home is gone.
When the couple fled with their 3-year-old daughter, Dannie, at around 8 a.m., flames were already consuming the rear of their property.
“Everything was just flames,” Liz Jenkins, 27, said. As she spoke, the dark grey plume from the Camp Fire filled the sky above Oroville behind her.