Five people have been killed in a wildfire raging across the town of Paradise in northern California, officials have confirmed.
The wildfire is one of three in the state that has gained in size and scope as firefighters sought to rescue victims and gain control of the disaster on Friday afternoon. All five victims were discovered in vehicles near the same area of Paradise, according to the Butte County Sheriff’s office.
The fire has grown to nearly 110 square miles after quadrupling in size over night in Paradise, located 180 miles northeast of San Francisco.
“There was really no firefight involved,” said Capt. Scott McLean of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, explaining that crews gave up attacking the flames and instead helped people evacuate. “These firefighters were in the rescue mode all day yesterday.”
The entire town was ordered evacuated, setting off a desperate exodus in which many motorists got struck in gridlocked traffic and abandoned their vehicles to flee foot. People reported seeing much of the community go up in flames, including homes, supermarkets, businesses, restaurants, schools and a retirement centre.
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.
Mr McLean estimated that the lost buildings numbered in the thousands in Paradise, about 180 miles (290 kilometers) northeast of San Francisco.
“Pretty much the community of Paradise is destroyed. It’s that kind of devastation,” he said.
With fires burning in both Northern and Southern California, the director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services put the number of people forced from their homes at 157,000.
The massive blaze that hit Paradise spread north Friday, prompting officials to order the evacuation of Stirling City and Inskip, two communities north of Paradise along the Sierra Nevada foothills.
The wind-driven flames also spread to the west and reached the edge of Chico, a city of 90,000 people.
Firefighters were able to stop the fire at the edge of the city, where evacuation orders remained in place Friday, California Fire Captain Bill Murphy said.
The winds calmed down in the valley, but they were still shifting and erratic, with speeds of up to 45 mph (72 kph) along ridge tops, he said.
With ash falling and the sky darkening to a menacing shade of black, 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.
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.
The AP contributed to this report.