Deadly fire leveled a California town in less than a day

A woman reacts as fires burn in Malibu, Calif., on Friday. Fires across the state have left multiple people dead, destroyed thousands of buildings and wiped out the town of Paradise, population 27,000.

Not a single resident of Paradise can be seen anywhere in town after most of them fled the burning northern California community that may be lost forever. Abandoned, charred vehicles cluttered the main thoroughfare, evidence of the panicked evacuation a day earlier.

Nine have been found dead. Entire neighbourhoods are levelled. In a single day, this Sierra Nevada foothill town of 27,000 was largely incinerated by flames that moved so fast there was nothing firefighters could do. One resident described it as if “the garden of Eden just turned into the gates of hell.”

Since Thursday, the blaze — known as the Camp Fire — has grown to nearly 404 square kilometres and destroyed more than 6,700 structures, almost all of them homes, making it California’s most destructive wildfire since record-keeping began.

Victims of the blaze were found inside their cars and outside vehicles or homes after a desperate evacuation that Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea called “the worst-case scenario.” Their identities are not yet known.

“It is what we feared for a long time,” Honea said, noting there was no time to knock on residents’ doors one-by-one. 

Tearful residents react after deadly fires tore through their neighbourhoods:

California residents react to deadly fires that swept in and destroyed homes.1:01

Meanwhile, Los Angeles County sheriff’s Chief John Benedict said two people died as a result of another pair of blazes in southern California.

Benedict said two bodies were found in a sparsely populated stretch of the Mulholland Highway in Malibu, but didn’t offer any further details.

The deaths are the first from a pair of wildfires — the Woolsey and Hill fires — that now stretch across 260 square kilometres.

State officials put the total number of people in California forced from their homes because of fires at more than 300,000.

Evacuation orders included the entire city of Malibu, which is home to 13,000, among them some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Celebrities such as Orlando Bloom, Caitlyn Jenner, Alyssa Milano and Lady Gaga posted messages to social media describing the damage and expressing gratitude to firefighters.

President Donald Trump has issued an emergency declaration providing federal funds for Butte, Ventura and Los Angeles counties. On Twitter Saturday, he threatened to withhold federal payments to California, claiming its forest management is “so poor,” but later tweeted, “Please listen to evacuation orders from state and local officials!”

Although crews have made gains and the fire in Paradise is now partially contained, parts of the blaze were still burning out of control, officials said Saturday.

A thick, yellow haze hung in the town, giving the appearance of twilight in the middle of the day. Some of the “majestic oaks” the town boasts of on its website still have fires burning in their trunks. Thick wooden posts holding up guardrails continued to burn.

Paradise, situated in a canyon between two ridges, was a popular retirement community, raising concerns for elderly and immobile residents who have been reported missing.

Watch how thousands fled the blaze as it destroyed Paradise:

Officials say the fire burning around the town of Paradise has become the state’s most destructive blaze since record-keeping began.3:00

On the outskirts of town, Patrick Knuthson, a fourth-generation resident, said only two of the 22 homes that once stood on his street are still there — his and a neighbour’s.

“The fire burned from one house, to the next house, to the next house until they were pretty much all gone,” Knuthson said. He worked side-by-side with neighbours all night, using a backhoe to create a fire line, determined not to lose his house this time.

“I lost my home in 2008, and it’s something you can’t really describe until you go through it,” said Knuthson, who battled flames three metres or taller as strong winds whipped hot embers around him. He worked so long in the flames and smoke that he needed to use oxygen Thursday night at his home, but he refused to leave.

St. Nicolas Church is one of the few buildings in Paradise left standing. The nearby New Life church is gone. An unblemished Burger King sign rises above a pile of charred rubble. The metal patio tables are the only recognizable things under Mama Celeste’s pizzeria sign.

The town’s 100-bed hospital is still standing, but two of its smaller buildings, including an outpatient clinic, are flattened. 

On the outskirts of Paradise, Krystin Harvey lost her mobile home. She described a town rich with historical charm, until a day ago.

“It was an old country town. It had the old buildings lined up along the walkway,” she said. “Almost all businesses were locally owned and included an assortment of antique shops, thrift stores, small restaurants, two bars and lots of churches.”

People in Paradise, like so many in California, have become accustomed to wildfires, and many said they were well prepared. 

Drought, warmer weather attributed to climate change and home construction deeper into forests have led to more destructive wildfire seasons that have been starting earlier and lasting longer.

A Sonoma Valley firefighter inspects burned out cars to make sure they are clear of human remains in Paradise, Calif., on Friday.(John Locher/Associated Press)

California emerged from a five-year drought last year but has had a very dry 2018, and much of the northern two-thirds of the state, including where the fire is burning, is abnormally dry, according to a U.S. government analysis.

Just 160 kilometres north of Paradise, the sixth most destructive wildfire in California history hit in July and August and was also one of the earliest.

Called the Carr Fire, near Redding, it killed eight people, burned about 1,100 homes and consumed 927 square kilometres before it was contained.