Homes were swallowed by the raging flames.
Cars and trucks were left melting in the road.
And thousands of residents of a remote Northern California town fled for their lives as the Camp Fire roared across California’s Butte County, about 90 miles north of the state’s capital, Sacramento.
By Thursday night, Cal Fire Capt. Scott McLean said the blaze had burned about 30 square miles, destroying an untold number of structures.
The troubling statistics: By Friday morning, nearly 110 square miles had burned by a fire that was 5 percent contained, with 15,000 structures threatened and scores of people still under mandatory evacuation orders, officials said.
Officials said at a news conference that the fast-moving fire also injured an undisclosed number of civilians and two firefighters. Acting governor Gavin Newsom (D), who is filling the role while Gov. Jerry Brown is out of state, declared a state of emergency. Officials said that they had heard reports of fatalities but that they could not yet access the affected areas to confirm those reports.
Paradise, a town of 27,000 that is popular with retirees, was evacuated, as were the nearby communities of Magalia, Pulga, Concow, Butte Valley and Butte Creek Canyon. Officials said Friday morning that an evacuation order had also been issued for Stirling City and Inskip, as the National Weather Service warned strong winds and low humidity could create “critical fire weather conditions.”
As the wildfire broke out early Thursday morning, Colton Percifield, 20, said that he awoke at a friend’s house in Concow to find smoke outside. Spot fires soon encroached on the home.
“Within half an hour, the whole place was in flames,” he said. By 8:20 a.m., the house was burning.
Percifield left in his pickup truck for an emergency gathering place outside town, finding himself on an empty road with the fire a swelling inferno on both sides. A video he took captures the hellacious conditions he described: thick smoke and heat surrounding the truck as the temperature rose inside, while giant sparks and flames licked the roof over his head in nearly pitch-black darkness. At one point, a tree branch fell on his car, smashing his windshield and denting his hood.
Percifield said he drove off the road a few times in the low-visibility conditions but eventually made it to a meadow that is maintained for residents to gather in the event of fires. He said that people spoke there about neighbors in Concow who had been unable to escape their homes.
Shary Bernacett, who manages a mobile home park in Paradise with her husband, told USA Today that the couple had urged residents to flee town.
“My husband tried his best to get everybody out,” she said. “The whole hill’s on fire. God help us!”
Resident Whitney Vaughn said as people were driving out of town, many of them abandoned their vehicles, “running with their babies and kids.”
She wrote on Facebook that “someone rammed our vehicle with theirs, trying to get through,” according to CNN. “There were no firefighters in sight. I am hoping all of these people made it out.”
Meanwhile, hundreds of miles south in Ventura County, where residents were still reeling from a mass shooting that left 12 people dead, more wildfires broke out, forcing thousands of people to evacuate.
The fire in Butte County started Thursday near Pulga, a small community surrounded by the Plumas National Forest, officials said. The first firefighters to arrive found 10 to 15 acres burning. Wind gusts of nearly 50 miles per hour helped speed the fire’s growth.
Still, officials warned that the situation could change rapidly. Cal Fire Chief Darren Read told reporters at the time that an estimated 1,500 first responders were at the scene or en route, as well as 300 fire engines, 20 bulldozers, aircraft and other support vehicles.
According to Sacramento Bee reporter Ryan Lillis, about 60 to 70 people were awaiting emergency evacuation at a Walgreen’s in Paradise.
“Fire crews asking for buses to get them out,” he reported. A hospital, Adventist Health Feather River, was evacuated before it caught fire. The hospital’s parent company could not be reached for comment.
Evacuation routes were clogged with people attempting to flee the growing blaze, the Sacramento Bee reported, and first responders expressed concern about whether they could escape.
“I can’t think of an area that’s safe right now,” Lt. Al Smith of the Butte County Sheriff’s Office told the San Francisco Chronicle on Thursday.
Many took to social media to express their distress, showing apocalyptic imagery of smoke-filled skies and horizon lines of neon orange in what is becoming a familiar ritual in California. Others flooded Twitter with messages about missing family members.
“My mother is trapped with other drivers on Pearson Rd in Paradise with houses burning nearby,” one person wrote on Twitter. “People leaving vehicles and running with children and pets.”
Schools in the county were closed on Friday, as were roadways. Officials warned that the blaze could reach the city of Chico, a college town of about 93,000 about six miles from Paradise. The university said it planned to close Friday “out of an abundance of caution.”
Furthermore, smoke from the fire wafted westward to the San Francisco Bay area, satellite imagery showed, prompting a local air quality warning.
The National Weather Service had predicted dangerous fire weather in California because of Santa Ana winds, which roar in from the east and accelerate down California’s north-to-south-oriented mountain slopes. Red-flag warnings for “critical fire weather conditions” were in effect not only for the Sacramento Valley but also through Central and Southern California. Wind gusts of 50 mph were expected in many locations.
About 23.4 million Californians were under red-flag warnings Thursday into early Friday, after which the winds are expected to ease, giving responders improving conditions for battling the blaze.
California has experienced debilitating fires of unprecedented regularity in the past few years. In August, the Mendocino Complex Fire became the largest wildfire ever recorded in the state, eventually burning more than 400,000 acres. The previous record was set less than a year before in another catastrophic fire that burned through more than 280,000 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. In October 2017, some 21 wildfires burned nearly 95,000 acres and 7,000 buildings in Sonoma and Napa counties in the heart of California’s wine country, killing 40 people.