Preparedness

Northern California Fire Update: Officials Report at Least Five Fatalities From Catastrophic Camp Fire

Public safety personnel are so busy trying to fight the rapidly growing infernos and evacuating residents that they don’t yet know the full extent of the loss of life and property.

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(TNS) - Authorities said Friday morning at least five people have died in the Camp Fire that rapidly engulfed the town of Paradise near Chico, and more fatalities are expected to be discovered as the flames rage out of control and smoke blankets the region in an orange haze.

Two other wildfires meanwhile continued to scorch their way toward the Pacific Ocean in Ventura County, prompting evacuations of Malibu, a Cal State University campus and a naval base.

“The magnitude of the destruction that we are seeing is really, again, unbelievable and heartbreaking, and our, our hearts go out to everybody who has been affected by this and impacted,” Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, said in a Friday morning news conference live-streamed on Facebook.

Butte County Sheriff-Coroner Kory L. Honea reported Friday that five people have been found dead in the area of Edgewood Lane in Paradise. Their bodies were found in vehicles that the sheriff said “were overcome by the Camp Fire,” and were too badly burned to identify yet.

Ghilarducci said in an earlier news conference that public safety personnel are so busy trying to fight the rapidly growing infernos and evacuating residents that they don’t yet know the full extent of the loss of life and property. He did say he was not aware of any fatalities involving public safety personnel fighting the fires.

There are six wildfires burning simultaneously up and down the state that has seen no rainfall nearly a month into the start of its rainy season.

Among them, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reported Friday morning that the Brushy Fire in Mendocino County east of Highway 101 has reached 35 acres and is 50 percent contained. The Rincon Fire off Highway 9 north of Santa Cruz has held at 17 acres and is 90 percent contained.

But it is the massive Camp Fire that burned the town of Paradise east of Chico as well as the Hill and Woolsey fires in southern California that state officials called “critical” and are now the greatest concern.

As of Friday morning, the Camp Fire had burned 70,000 acres, nearly quadrupling in size overnight, and was only 5 percent contained. The fire scorched 110 square miles, six times the size of Paradise, a town of 26,000 that sits 12 miles east of Chico and 90 miles north of Sacramento, and more than twice the size of San Francisco. It has destroyed an estimated 2,000 homes and other buildings and is threatening 15,000.

The Hill Fire has burned 6,100 acres in Ventura County’s Santa Rosa Valley, prompting evacuation of 15,000 residents as well as the Point Mugu Naval Base and the Cal State Channel Islands university campus. Rich Macklin, a spokesman for the Ventura County Fire Department, said the fire swept southwest and crossed Highway 101 in just 12 to 15 minutes after it ignited. It remained uncontained Friday morning.

“Extreme fire behavior, extreme winds — resources couldn’t even get in front of it,” Macklin said at a news briefing Friday. “It was all about getting people out of the path of the fire. We weren’t even engaging the fire.”

Ventura County fire spokesman Brian McGrath said that the Woolsey Fire south of Simi Valley has burned “10,000-plus acres” and has prompted the evacuation of Malibu. The fire department said some buildings had been destroyed but had no estimate of how many.

“It has grown rapidly over the night,” McGrath said. “Our higher priority is life safety and making sure people get evacuated.”

Ghilarducci said 105,000 people have been evacuated from the two southern California fires, and 52,000 have been evacuated in northern California around Camp Fire.

State officials said that unfavorable weather conditions helped fuel the rapid growth of fires up and down the state, a combination of tinder-dry vegetation that hasn’t seen rain in months, low humidity and powerful, dry offshore winds have quickly whipped the flames into infernos.

And while winds may slack into the weekend, the pattern is expected to continue into next week, they warned.

“We have red-flag conditions, critical fire weather across all of California,” Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said at the news conference. “We are basically looking at a very significant, dangerous weather pattern through this next week.”

Pimlott said more than 6,000 firefighters are deployed across the state to tamp down the flames, as well as every available aircraft. There are 1,860 “mutual aid” firefighters responding from local fire departments to the fires throughout the state, with 500 fire engines and hundreds of law enforcement officers.

The California Highway Patrol has assigned 125 state troopers to assist with evacuations and traffic control, CHP Commissioner Warren Stanley said. And the California National Guard has deployed 185 personnel primarily to the Camp Fire area to help with aircraft, satellite imagery and evacuation assistance, said Adjutant Gen. David Baldwin.

But the winds and smoke hinder the use and effectiveness of the aircraft, he said. State officials have requested firefighting assistance from other western states.

The dry windy weather has made firefighting extraordinarily difficult.

“When the Camp Fire started yesterday morning, it was immediately met 40 mph winds,” Pimlott said. “That fire, from the second it started, was off to the races. It was well off to burning at dangerous rates of spread. These are the kinds of conditions we’re seeing across California.”

Acting Governor and governor-elect Gavin Newsom has declared states of emergency for Butte, Ventura and Los Angeles counties, and requested federal assistance.

The sky over Chico was a deep, dark orange Friday morning, casting an eerie gloom over the college town. Dozens of names were still listed as missing on a board at the Neighborhood Church of Chico on Friday morning. Many people there were waiting for family members from out of town to arrive and help get them out, while others simply had nowhere else to go. Some exchanged hugs with family members who arrived. Others were planning to pick up supplies like phone chargers and pillows at stores. Volunteers roamed to make sure people had breakfast and coffee.

Some wondered when they would be able to get back to their homes, but they also doubted there would be homes to go back to.

State officials said local authorities did their best to get the word out quickly to residents to evacuate out of harm’s way, even going door to door as the fire spread quickly.

“The sheriff of Butte County was able to send information out, make notifications,” Ghilarducci said. “The fire moved so fast, many notifications were made by deputies and public safety personnel going house to house, combinations of different methods.”

Pimlott added that the community is no stranger to wildfires and was well-prepared when the order came to evacuate.

“These were well-practiced evacuations,” Pimlott said. “But understand how quickly that fire has been spreading.”

“We are a long ways from being out of the fire fight right now,” Pimlott said. “Our focus is on life safety, particularly around the Camp Fire in Butte County. “Right now, it’s all hands on deck.”

  
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©2018 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

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