PARADISE, Calif. – Tens of thousands of people fled a fast-moving wildfire Thursday in Northern California, 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 as residents in the town of 27,000, about 180 miles northeast of San Francisco, were ordered to get out. The extent of the injuries and specific damage count was not immediately known as officials could not access the dangerous area.
Butte County CalFire Chief Darren Read said at a news conference that two firefighters and multiple residents were injured.
As she fled, Gina Oviedo 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 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 (1.5 square miles) 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.
“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 truck and drove through flames before getting to safety, she said.
The wildfire was reported around daybreak. Within six hours, it had grown to more than 26 square miles, Gaddie said.