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California wildfires leave at least 9 dead, cause 'unbelievable' destruction

Authorities say the fire burning around the town of Paradise has become the state's most destructive since record-keeping began.

Fire burning around town of Paradise has become state's most destructive on record

Firefighters are working to contain the deadly blaze. 0:47

Authorities say nine people have been confirmed dead in a Northern California wildfire.

Butte County Sheriff Korey Honea said Friday that some people were found inside their cars, but that he doesn't have all the details on the circumstances of the deaths.

Sheriff's officials earlier had reported six deaths.

Authorities say the fire burning around the town of Paradise has become the state's most destructive since record-keeping began.

The fires weren't limited to the north end of the sprawling state — crews in Southern California were also dealing with two major blazes that sparked evacuations in areas like Malibu.

"The magnitude of the destruction we're seeing is unbelievable," Mark Ghilarducci, of the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services, said earlier Friday.

More than 6,000 firefighters were on firelines across the state on Friday morning, a top Cal Fire official said.

There were six major fires burning Friday, but the three fire officials were most concerned about were:

  • Camp Fire, in northern Butte County.
  • Hill Fire, in southern Ventura County.
  • Woolsey Fire, in southern Ventura County. 

State officials said more than 150,000 people had been forced from their homes. Evacuation orders included the entire city of Malibu, which is home to 13,000, among them some of Hollywood's biggest stars.

Early Friday evening, fire and law enforcement officials in Southern California reiterated how dangerous the situation is, and urged people to respect evacuation orders and be cautious.

Flames approach a house in Malibu, Calif., with a loud roaring sound during the Woolsey Fire on Friday. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said crews were making progress on the Hill Fire, which had grown to around 24 square kilometres.

"We're making good progress and we remain optimistic," he said of that fire.

But Lorenzen expressed serious concern about the Woolsey Fire, saying it's grown significantly and that crews are struggling with conditions as they try to fight it.

Embers fall from burning palms and the sun is obscured by smoke as flames close in on a house in Malibu. (David McNew/Getty Images)

"My message to the public is, even though the wind has died down, stay on guard," he said.

"We're in the seventh year of a drought, our weather conditions out there, and our fuel conditions, are absolutely ripe for fire."

Meanwhile, the president declared an emergency in California and ordered federal assistance to help existing efforts to beat back the fires and support residents.

'Devastation' in Paradise

Only a day after it began, the blaze near the northern town of Paradise had grown to nearly 285 square kilometres and was burning completely out of control.

"There was really no firefight involved," Capt. Scott McLean of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said, explaining that crews gave up attacking the flames and instead helped people get out alive. "These firefighters were in the rescue mode all day yesterday."

When Paradise was evacuated, the order set off a desperate exodus in which many motorists got stuck in gridlocked traffic and abandoned their vehicles to flee on foot. People reported seeing much of the community go up in flames, including homes, supermarkets, businesses, restaurants, schools and a retirement centre.

Facebook user Brynn Parrott Chatfield posted a video of the devastation.

Rural areas fared little better. Many homes have propane tanks that were exploding amid the flames. "They were going off like bombs," said Karen Auday, who escaped to a nearby town.

McLean estimated that the lost buildings numbered in the thousands in Paradise, about 290 kilometres northeast of San Francisco.

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

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

Firefighters try to keep flames from burning home from spreading to a neighbouring apartment complex as they battle the Camp Fire on Friday in Paradise, Calif. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The wind-driven flames also spread to the west and reached Chico, a city of 90,000 people. Firefighters were able to stop the fire at the edge of the city, Cal Fire Cpt. Bill Murphy said.

There were no signs of life Friday on the road to Paradise except for the occasional bird chirp. A thick, yellow haze from the fire hung in the air and gave the appearance of twilight in the middle of the day.

Strong winds had blown the blackened needles on some evergreens straight to one side. A scorched car with its doors open sat on the shoulder.

This home is one of the thousands of buildings officials believe were damaged or destroyed in the Paradise area. By Friday, police had confirmed that at least five people died as a result of the California fires. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

At one burnt-out house, flames still smoldered inside what appeared to be a weight room. The rubble included a pair of dumbbells with the rubber melted off and the skeletons of a metal pull-up bar and other exercise equipment. The grass and elaborate landscaping all around the brick and stucco home remained an emerald green. Red pool umbrellas were furled near lounge chairs and showed not a singe on them.

Evacuees from Paradise sat in stunned silence Friday outside a Chico church where they took refuge the night before. They all had harrowing tales of a slow-motion escape from a fire so close they could feel the heat inside their vehicles as they sat stuck in a terrifying traffic jam.

'Wall of fire'

When the order came to evacuate, it was like the entire town of 27,000 residents decided to leave at once, they said. Fire surrounded the evacuation route, and drivers panicked. Some crashed and others left their vehicles by the roadside.

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

A nurse called Rita Miller on Thursday morning, telling her she had to get her disabled mother, who lives a few blocks away, and flee Paradise immediately. Miller jumped in her boyfriend's rickety pickup truck, which was low on gas and equipped with a bad transmission. She instantly found herself stuck in gridlock.

"I was frantic," she said. After an hour of no movement, she abandoned the truck and decided to try her luck on foot. While walking, a stranger in the traffic jam rolled down her window and asked Miller if she needed help.

Emergency personnel worked Thursday to evacuate Feather River Hospital while the Camp Fire raged through Paradise. (Noah Berger/Associated Press)

Miller at first scoffed at the notion of getting back in a vehicle. Then she reconsidered, thinking: "I'm really scared. This is terrifying. I can't breathe. I can't see, and maybe I should humble myself and get in this woman's car."

The stranger helped Miller pack up her mother and took them to safety in Chico. It took three hours to travel the 22 kilometres.

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 around 9:30 a.m. PT 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."

Fear and worry over missing

The missing included Richard Wayne Johnson and his wife, Suzanne, who lived in an RV park in Paradise that burned, according to his daughter Dawn Johnson of Independent, Ore.

"He has Stage 4 prostate cancer. She's in her 70s and mostly confined to her bed due to fibromyalgia," Johnson said. "I would be very surprised if they had gas in their car to leave."

She said the couple moved from Texas to the California foothill town about a year ago and were probably not prepared for wildfires.

Johnson said she has not been able to reach them by cellphone, and members of the couple's Jehovah's Witnesses Kingdom Hall in Paradise told her they have not seem them at local shelters.

"I checked all over," she said. "Red Cross, anything you can think of I've tried to do."

With files from CBC News