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‘The whole place was in flames’: Residents flee as Camp Fire tears through California towns

The Camp Fire in Northern California erupted Nov. 8, leaving a path of destruction and forcing tens of thousands of residents to evacuate their homes. (Video: Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

UPDATE: Paradise ‘pretty much destroyed’ as wildfire rages in Northern California

A destructive and fast-moving wildfire erupted in Northern California on Thursday morning, spreading rapidly because of mix howling winds and extremely dry conditions.

The Camp Fire, in Butte County, north of the state’s capital, Sacramento, had burned through some 18,000 acres as of Thursday evening and was 0 percent contained as officials scrambled to evacuate area residents. It had injured an undisclosed number of civilians, and two firefighters, officials said at a news conference on Thursday. Acting governor Gavin Newsom (D), who is filling the role while Gov. Jerry Brown is out of state, has 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.

Social media was flooded with 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. Paradise, Calif., a town of 27,000 that is popular with retirees, has been evacuated, as were the nearby communities of Pulga and Concow. As many as 1,000 structures were reportedly burned in town.

Colton Percifield, 20, said in an interview that he awoke at friend’s house in Concow to find smoke outside around 7 a.m. Spot fires soon encroached on the house.

“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 of town, finding himself on an empty road with the fire a swelling inferno on both sides of the road around him. 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 that 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.

Colton Percifield took a video from his truck on Nov. 8, as he fled the Camp Fire in Northern California. (Video: Colton Percifield)

The fire started in the early hours of the morning near Pulga, a small community surrounded by the Plumas National Forest, officials said. The first firefighters to arrive found about 10-15 acres burning. Wind gusts of nearly 50 miles per hour helped speed its growth.

And officials cautioned that the situation could still change rapidly. Cal Fire Chief Darren Read told reporters 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, some 60 to 70 people were awaiting an emergency evacuation at a Walgreen’s in Paradise.

“Fire crews asking for buses to get them out,” he reported. A hospital in town, Adventist Health Feather River, was also evacuated before it caught on 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. More than 30,000 people had been evacuated.

Many people took to social media to register their distress.

“My mother is trapped with other drivers on Pearson Rd in Paradise with houses burning nearby,” tweeted @jdpiersoniv. “People leaving vehicles and running with children and pets.”

Schools in the county would be closed on Friday. Cal Fire 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.”

An evacuation order issued by the county extended up to the city’s limits.

“Right now, Mother Nature is in charge,” spokesman Bryce Bennett told the Bee.

Smoke from the fire had 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 conditions 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.

There were 23.4 million Californians 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 had been 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.