Camp fire devastates Paradise near Chico
PARADISE — Tens of thousands of people fled a fast-moving wildfire Thursday in Butte County, some clutching babies and pets as they abandoned vehicles and struck out on foot ahead of the flames that forced the evacuation of an entire town and destroyed hundreds of structures.
“Pretty much the community of Paradise is destroyed, it’s that kind of devastation,” said Cal Fire Capt. Scott McLean late Thursday. “The wind that was predicted came and just wiped it out.”
McLean estimated that a couple of thousand structures were destroyed in the town of 27,000 residents in the Sierra foothills east of Chico. The extent of the injuries and specific damage count was not immediately known as officials could not access the dangerous area.
Butte County Cal Fire Chief Darren Read said at a news conference that two firefighters and multiple residents were injured.
Gina Oviedo, who fled the blaze, described a devastating scene in which flames engulfed homes, sparked explosions and toppled utility poles.
“Things started exploding,” Oviedo said. “People started getting out of their vehicles and running.”
An Associated Press photographer saw dozens of businesses and homes leveled or in flames, including a liquor store and gas station.
“It’s a very dangerous and very serious situation,” Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said. “I’m driving through fire as we speak. We’re doing everything we can to get people out of the affected areas.”
The blaze erupted as windy weather swept the state, creating extreme fire danger. A wind-whipped fire north of Los Angeles in Ventura County burned about 15,000 acres and at least one home in a matter of hours. It prompted evacuations of a mobile home park, a state university campus and a small community. A nearby blaze was smaller at less than 1,000 acres but moving quickly.
Acting California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency for the fire-stricken area in Northern California.
Shari Bernacett said her husband tried to get people to leave the Paradise mobile home park they manage. He “knocked on doors, yelled and screamed” to alert as many residents as possible, Bernacett said.
“My husband tried his best to get everybody out. The whole hill’s on fire. God help us!” she said before breaking down crying. She and her husband grabbed their dog, jumped in their pickup and drove through flames before getting to safety, she said.
Terrifying videos posted on social media showed cars driving along roads that looked like tunnels of fire with flames on both sides.
Concerned friends and family posted frantic messages on social media saying they were looking for loved ones, particularly seniors who lived at retirement homes or alone.
Among those searching was Kim Curtis. She was trying to contact her grandmother, who told family at 8 a.m. Thursday that she would flee her Paradise home in her Buick with her cat. Her grandmother, who is in her 70s and lives alone, never showed up at a meeting spot in Chico, though.
“We’ve just been posting all over social media. And just praying for a miracle, honestly,” said Curtis, who lives in Salt Lake City.
Officials were sending as many firefighters as they could, Cal Fire spokesman Rick Carhart said.