Three people died in a wind-whipped Northern California wildfire that has forced thousands of people from their homes while carving a 25-mile (40.2 kilometers) path of destruction through mountainous terrain and parched foothills, authorities said Wednesday.
California Highway Patrol Officer Ben Draper told the Bay Area News Group that one person was found in a car and apparently had been trying to escape the flames.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of homes and other buildings are believed to have been damaged or destroyed by the blaze northeast of San Francisco, fire officials said at an evening news conference.
Since the middle of August, fires in California have killed 11 people, destroyed more than 3,600 structures, burned old growth redwoods, charred chaparral and forced evacuations in communities near the coast, in wine country and along the Sierra Nevada.
Thick smoke Wednesday choked much of the state and cast an eerie orange hue across the sky as thousands of people in communities near Oroville were ordered to evacuate.
Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, conservatively estimated the fire had burned about 1,036 square kilometers in 24 hours.
"The unbelievable rates of spread now being observed on these fires – it is historically unprecedented," Swain tweeted.
The U.S. Forest Service, which had taken the unprecedented measure of closing eight national forests in Southern California earlier in the week, ordered all 18 of its forests in the state closed Wednesday for public safety.
The fire raging outside Oroville, 200 kilometers northeast of San Francisco, jumped the middle fork of the Feather River on Tuesday and, driven by 72 km/h winds, leapt into a canopy of pines and burned all the way to Lake Oroville – about 40 kilometers, said Jake Cagle, one of the fire chiefs involved.
Firefighters were focused on saving lives and homes instead of trying to halt the fire's advance, Cagle said.
In Paradise, where 85 people lost their lives and nearly 19,000 buildings were destroyed, the sky turned from black to cherry red and ash carried on strong winds rained down in a scene reminiscent from the fateful morning of November 8, 2018, former Mayor Steve "Woody" Culleton said.
"It was extremely frightening and ugly," Culleton said. "Everybody has PTSD and what not, so it triggered everybody and caused terror and panic."
Thick smoke casts an eerie orange hue across the sky in San Francisco, September 9, 2020. /VCG
A power shutoff to prevent electric lines from sparking wildfires – the cause of the Paradise fire – prevented people from getting up-to-date information by internet, TV or their home phones, Culleton said. Many of the residents decided to leave and created a traffic jam leading out of town, another scary reminder of the bottleneck where several residents died two years ago.
On Tuesday, flames overtook 14 firefighters who had to deploy last-resort emergency shelters trying to protect a mountaintop fire station above Big Sur on California's central coast. Three suffered burns and smoke inhalation. However, one firefighter who was in critical condition was upgraded to stable condition and the other two were treated and released from a Fresno hospital, the U.S. Forest Service said.
That fire, which had doubled overnight Tuesday and burned terrain that hadn't seen fire in 40 years, destroyed an office, two fire engines, barracks and all the firefighters' personal belongings inside.
In Southern California, fires burned in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Diego counties. People in foothill communities east of Los Angeles were warned to be ready to flee, but the region's notorious Santa Ana winds were weaker than predicted.
"We're encouraged that the wind activity appears to be dying down," Gov. Gavin Newsom said. "The rest of the week looks a little more favorable."
California has set a record with nearly one million hectares burned already this year, and historically the worst of the wildfire season doesn't begin until fall.
(With input from AP)