11 dead as ferocious fires sweep California, forcing evacuations

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Fire rages through neighborhoods as the Camp Fire burns out of control through Paradise, fueled by high winds in Butte County, California, USA, Nov. 8, 2018. (EPA Photo)
Fire rages through neighborhoods as the Camp Fire burns out of control through Paradise, fueled by high winds in Butte County, California, USA, Nov. 8, 2018. (EPA Photo)

Two monster wildfires burned out of control on Saturday in northern and southern California, having already killed at least 11 people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.

President Donald Trump blamed the fires on forest mismanagement and threatened to withdraw related federal funding.

In Los Angeles County, the 35,000-acre (14,164 hectares) Woolsey Fire was threatening 75,000 homes and more than 200,000 people were under mandatory evacuation early on Saturday.

Some of the evacuation orders were for residents within the City of Los Angeles in the West Hills area. It was unclear how many homes have been evacuated within the City of Los Angeles.

Some 500 miles (800 km) to the north, nine people were found dead in and around the Northern California town of Paradise, where more than 6,700 homes and businesses were burned down by the Camp Fire. That made it one of the most destructive blazes in state history, according to California Department of Forestry and Fire protection data.

"This event was the worst-case scenario. It was the event we have feared for a long time," Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said at a Friday evening press conference. "Regrettably, not everybody made it out."

Trump early on Saturday tweeted that "gross mismanagement of forests" was to blame for the two unchecked wildfires.

"There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor," he wrote in a Twitter post.

"Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!," he added.

The remains of five of the victims in Northern California were discovered in or near burned out cars, three outside residences and one inside a home, Butte County's Honea said.

Another 35 people had been reported missing and three firefighters had been injured.

The flames descended on Paradise so quickly that many people were forced to abandon their cars and run for their lives down the sole road through the mountain town.

The Camp Fire, which broke out on Thursday at the edge of the Plumas National Forest northeast of Sacramento, has since blackened more than 90,000 acres and was only 5 percent contained as of nightfall on Friday.

Capt. Scott McLean of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said the fire has grown to nearly 110 square miles (285 square kilometers) after destroying the town of Paradise.

"There was really no firefight involved," McLean said, explaining that crews gave up on attacking the flames and instead helped people evacuate. "These firefighters were in the rescue mode all day yesterday."

The entire town was ordered evacuated, setting off a desperate exodus in which many motorists got stuck in gridlocked traffic and abandoned their cars to flee foot. People in Paradise reported seeing much of the community go up in flames, including homes, supermarkets, businesses, restaurants, schools and a retirement center.

"We were surrounded by fire. We were driving through fire on each side of the road," police officer Mark Bass said.

On Friday, the massive blaze spread north, prompting officials to order the evacuation of Stirling City and Inskip, two communities north of Paradise along the Sierra Nevada foothills.

The wind-driven blaze also spread to the west and reached the edge of Chico, a city of 90,000 people. Firefighters were able to stop the flames at the edge of the city, where evacuation orders remained in place Friday, said Cal Fire Cpt. Bill Murphy said.

The winds calmed down in the valley, but they were still shifting and erratic, with speeds of up to 45 mph (72 kph) along ridge tops, he said.

In Paradise, Bass evacuated his family and then returned to the fire to help rescue several disabled residents, including a man trying to carry his bedridden wife to safety.

"It was just a wall of fire on each side of us, and we could hardly see the road in front of us," Bass said.

McLean estimated that several thousand buildings were lost in Paradise, about 180 miles (290 kilometers) northeast of San Francisco.

"Pretty much the community of Paradise is destroyed. It's that kind of devastation," he said.

Wildfires also erupted in Southern California, with reports early Friday of two large fires scorching about 23 square miles (60 square kilometers) and threatening numerous communities. ABC7.com reported that 75,000 homes were under evacuation orders along the border of Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

The National Weather Service issued extreme fire danger warnings in many areas of the state, saying low humidity and strong winds were expected to continue through the evening.

The fire in Paradise was reported shortly after daybreak Thursday.

In the midst of the chaos, officials said they could not provide figures on the number of wounded, but County Cal Fire Chief Darren Read said that at least two firefighters and multiple residents were injured.

"It's a very dangerous and very serious situation," Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said. "We're working very hard to get people out. The message I want to get out is: If you can evacuate, you need to evacuate." Several evacuation centers were set up in nearby towns.

Residents described fleeing their homes and getting stuck in traffic jams as the flames sparked explosions and toppled utility poles.

"Things started exploding," resident Gina Oviedo said. "People started getting out of their vehicles and running."

Many abandoned their cars and trucks on the side of the road.

"They were abandoned because traffic was so bad, backed up for hours," Bass said.

Thick gray smoke and ash filled the sky above Paradise and could be seen from miles away.

"It was absolutely dark," said resident Mike Molloy, who said he made a decision based on the wind to leave Thursday morning, packing only the minimum and joining a sea of other vehicles.

Concerned friends and family posted frantic messages on Twitter and other sites saying they were looking for loved ones, particularly seniors who lived at retirement homes or alone.

Chico police officer John Barker and his partner evacuated several elderly people from an apartment complex.

"Most of them were immobile, with walkers or spouses that were bed-ridden, so we were trying to get additional units to come and try and help us, just taking as many as we could," he said. He described the community as having a lot of elderly residents, some with no vehicles.

Kelly Lee called shelters looking for her husband's 93-year-old grandmother, Dorothy Herrera, who was last heard from Thursday morning. Herrera, who lives in Paradise with her 88-year-old husband, Lou, left a frantic voicemail at around 9:30 a.m. saying they needed to get out.

"We never heard from them again," Lee said. "We're worried sick. ... They do have a car, but they both are older and can be confused at times."

A wildfire that tore through Malibu mansions and working-class suburban homes in Southern California's hills and canyons has killed two people and had more than doubled in size by Saturday.

Officials took advantage of temporarily calm conditions to assess damage from the blaze that has burned 109 square miles (282 square kilometers) north and west of downtown Los Angeles. Firefighters were searching burned-out neighborhoods for new destruction from two blazes that have already destroyed 150 homes.

Los Angeles County sheriff's Chief John Benedict said two people have been found dead but provided no details on the deaths.

The fire erupted Thursday near the northwest corner of the city of Los Angeles as the region's notorious Santa Ana winds gusted, triggering overnight evacuations of an estimated 75,000 homes in western Los Angeles County and eastern Ventura County.

The fire then pushed southward, jumped the wide U.S. 101 freeway before dawn Friday and pushed into the Santa Monica range.

Another fire was burning farther west in Ventura County, also moving toward the ocean.

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