A raging forest fire in Northern California nearly “destroyed” a town in its path on Thursday—causing the deaths of at least five people and prompting some terrified residents to flee on foot amid the rapidly spreading flames, according to reports.
The 20,000-acre Camp Fire that tore through Paradise spurred an evacuation order for the community’s 27,000 residents. Officials said Friday that five people were found dead in their scorched cars.
Sprawling flames laid waste to “several thousand” structures and as residents fled for their lives, roads became “tunnels of fire as thick smoke darkened the daytime sky” near Paradise, which is located some 180 miles from San Francisco, according to the Associated Press.
“Pretty much the community of Paradise is destroyed, it’s that kind of devastation,” said Scott McLean, a captain with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
As this blaze raged, Southern California contended with twin infernos in Ventura County, where the Woolsey Fire jumped the 101 Freeway Friday morning as it spread toward the Pacific Ocean. The second fire erupted in the Santa Rosa Valley, mere miles from Thousand Oaks, where a mass shooting at a bar left 12 people dead late Wednesday evening, USA Today notes.
The three fires have caused an estimated 157,000 people to flee their homes, according to a tweet from the Associated Press.
Paradise residents who fled recounted an apocalyptic scene to reporters, as explosions broke out and utility poles fell.
“Things started exploding,” Gina Oviedo told the AP. “People started getting out of their vehicles and running.”
A reporter from an area ABC affiliate captured shocking video revealing that a “firenado”—a column of flames—had swirled above the scorched earth.
“We were surrounded by fire, we were driving through fire on each side of the road,” Mark Bass, a police officer who lives in Paradise, is quoted as saying in an AP story. “It was just a wall of fire on each side of us, and we could hardly see the road in front of us.”
Four employees of a hospital that was evacuated were temporarily “trapped in the basement” until they could be rescued, the AP said.
Social media was filled with posts from panicked family members and friends of elderly persons in the area.
John Barker, a police officer from nearby Chico, said he and his partner had rescued several elderly people from their apartments.
“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.
The Camp Fire is reportedly moving toward Chico, spurring still more evacuations.
Some schools in the Bay Area have opted to close, due to the poor air quality, the ABC affiliate reported.
The two brush fires in Ventura County ignited on Thursday and rapidly spread, fueled by dry air and extreme winds. One of those fires, called the Hill Fire, had ballooned to 15-square miles by Friday morning, prompting the evacuation of Cal State University’s Channel Islands campus. So far, the Woolsey Fire has engulfed a minimum of 12.5 square miles.
Some 75,000 homes in Ventura and Los Angeles Counties are under voluntary or mandatory evacuation orders. Some 20 homes were ravaged by fire, The Los Angeles Times reported.
The National Weather Service described the situation in Southern California as “critical to extreme fire weather.”
According to the National Weather Service, high pressure conditions will bolster dry conditions and coastal winds, potentially further fanning the sprawling blaze.
While the high pressure may drop on Saturday, weakening the winds, a return of high pressure may prompt a return of “gusty winds” by the weekend’s end.