(Courthouse News) After leveling nearly an entire town of 27,000 in a matter of hours, the Camp Fire in Northern California turned its sights to the college town of Chico on Friday, where authorities alerted the nearly 90,000 residents to be prepared to flee.
The fire, which started only Thursday, has already burned 70,000 acres and remains only 5 percent contained. While the cause of the fire remains under investigation, utility Pacific Gas & Electric told state regulators on Friday it experienced a problem with a transmission line in the area minutes before the fire broke out.
In the town of Paradise almost 90 miles north of Sacramento, the wildfire destroyed some 2,000 structures in a matter of hours pushed along by strong winds that continued into Friday.
“Firefighters continue to be challenged with extreme fire and weather conditions including strong winds and with long-range spotting,” Cal Fire said in its Friday morning update.
Several landmarks, including the Honey Run Covered Bridge in Butte Creek Canyon, have been incinerated, but the hospital and Paradise High School have reportedly been spared.
The fire continues to threaten more than 15,000 structures in the area, according to the latest Cal Fire estimate.
Officials say the fire started in the Feather River Canyon near the small town of Pulga. The high winds pushed the blaze at a pace of 2,000 acres per hour, razing Paradise before moving to the outskirts of Chico.
Many of those residents were on tenterhooks as dawn broke Friday and officials issued an evacuation warning for residents to be ready to flee at any time.
“There was really no firefight involved,” said Capt. Scott McLean of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection told the Associated Press, explaining crews gave up on attacking the flames and instead helped people evacuate. “These firefighters were in the rescue mode all day yesterday.”
Paradise residents described traffic jams due to limited options for escape. The foothill town is built on a plateau with steep canyons on all sides and few roads in and out.
Many residents abandoned their cars and fled on foot as the flames advanced.
The Associated Press reported five fatalities as of late Friday morning, and social media has been flooded with inquiries about missing family members and pets. Officials confirmed the five people died in their vehicles trying to escape.
Cal Fire said the Camp Fire is already the fourth most destructive in state history.
Southern California wildfires
Wildfires fanned by strong winds in Southern California thousands of residents there to flee their homes Friday morning as fire officials closed a major highway. Authorities issued evacuation orders for the coastal enclave of Malibu as the Woolsey Fire grew to approximately 14,000 acres Friday afternoon and exploded to 35,000 acres by Friday evening.
The blaze is zero percent contained.
Fire officials told Malibu residents to flee after the fire jumped Highway 101 near the Malibu Creek State Park around 5 a.m. Friday, forcing officials to close the road. The fire has jumped the highway in several locations, officials said late Friday.
Chief David Richardson with the Los Angeles County Fire Department said the fire and Santa Ana winds have brought challenges to firefighters.
“Heed our direction and warning,” said Richardson. “Leave early.”
Many homes have been damaged or destroyed and officials say more are in the path of the fire as 40 mph winds fanned flames overnight. The cause of the fire remains under investigation. There are 2,000 firefighters active in the area, according to officials.
Resources are an issue due to several wildfires burning in the region in addition to the Camp Fire in the north state.
“We have a competing of resources,” said Richardson. “There have been entire communities impacted in Northern California.”
A second fire burning in Ventura County that prompted evacuations on Thursday has grown to 10,000 acres. The Hill Fire is burning about 15 miles west of Thousand Oaks, where two days ago a gunman killed 12 people at a bar and grill.
Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks said, “Our hearts go out to the tragedy from yesterday. Some of you are still reeling but we’re resilient.”
A reunification center for families of the shooting has since been converted into an evacuation center for the fires. Some 17,000 people had been ordered to flee their homes as of Friday afternoon.
Acting Gov. Gavin Newsom declared states of emergency for Ventura and Los Angeles counties earlier in the day. Between the two fires, about 148,000 residents have received evacuation orders.
Farther east, a fire near the Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles broke out just after 7 a.m. Friday in steep terrain that is making it difficult for firefighters to reach by fire engine.
Staff at the nearby LA Zoo prepared to evacuate animals as smoke billowed up from a hillside in Griffith Park. The Los Angeles Times reported lemurs were the first to be evacuated, as zoo staff sprayed water on the hillsides next to the zoo.
The National Weather Service in Los Angeles said a red-flag warning will remain in effect as strong dry winds continue to buffet the region.