Updated at 3:50 p.m. ET
When the sun rose Thursday over Paradise, Calif., the small town of 27,000 awoke to find the world looking largely as it always had. But by nightfall, Paradise had been all but wiped off the map, with at least five people dead and its buildings reduced to ruin.
Now, the Camp Fire has consumed more than 70,000 acres, and at just 5 percent contained, it is likely to burn through tens of thousands more. And it is just one of several major wildfires now cutting a fiery path through the state.
Nearly 500 miles south of Butte County, another small community had been struggling to cope with a different kind of trauma Thursday afternoon. Thousand Oaks was still reeling with the news that a gunman had slain 12 victims at a bar in cold blood, when a new danger developed just miles to the east.
Unbeknownst to residents, the Woolsey Fire had just ignited a short drive away.
By Friday morning, some 75,000 homes across Ventura and Los Angeles counties — and extending as far south as the city of Malibu — were already under evacuation orders. The wildfire, which has now burned 14,000 acres, was also complicating those evacuation efforts by finding footholds on both sides of one of the region’s main thoroughfares, the 101 Freeway.
Elsewhere in Ventura County, mere miles to the west, a third wildfire ignited within an hour of the Woolsey Fire. Now known as the Hill Fire, that fast-moving blaze has consumed some 6,000 acres of land. It has forced evacuations at Naval Air Station Point Mugu and at California State University, Channel Islands along with several communities near the southern Ventura coastline.
All told, Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California Office of Emergency Services, says the three wildfires have forced more than 150,000 people to evacuate their homes across the state. Acting Gov. Gavin Newsom has also declared a state of emergency in Los Angeles, Ventura and Butte counties.
Some may have lost their lives trying to flee the Camp Fire. The Butte County Sheriff’s Office confirmed Friday at least five people have died.
“The preliminary investigation revealed that the victims were located in vehicles that were overcome by the Camp Fire. Due to the burn injuries, identification could not be immediately made,” the office said in a statement released Friday.
A local couple recorded their own harrowing escape from the region, posting a video on Facebook that recalls scenes from an apocalyptic film.
“Heavenly Father, please help us — please help us to be safe,” the woman prays in the passenger seat, choking back tears as their vehicle threads a path toward safety through billowing clouds of ash and embers.
Another resident told Jeremy Siegel of member station KQED that as she attempted to get out of the area, “we were engulfed in flames — both sides of the road.” She had to turn her vehicle around and head in another direction to escape, but that all the while, it “scared me to death.”
More than 2,200 firefighters are battling the Camp Fire, which, like the other two fires, has been exacerbated by intensely gusty, dry weather — conditions during which “a simple spark can cause a major wildfire,” explains the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
And Cal Fire Capt. Bill Murphy warned there’s likely still more to come.
“We are by no means out of the woods as far as the danger posed by the fire,” he said. “The amount of uncontained fire line is very large.”
To the south, hundreds of firefighters have their own hands full with the Woolsey and Hill blazes. As of Cal Fire’s latest updates, neither of the two southern blazes was even partially contained, and the Ventura County Fire Department announced that it would be deploying tactical aircraft to battle the fires “as wind and smoke conditions allow.”
“The first part of this fuel bed had not seen fire for many years. Drought-stricken fuels, Santa Ana wind conditions, low relative humidity, high temperatures: it’s a recipe for fire,” said VCFD Assistant Chief Chad Cook, according to the Ventura County Star.
The warm Santa Ana winds remained strong Friday morning, with gusts as high as 70 mph forecast in certain regions around the two southern fires. The National Weather Service does not expect the gusts to subside until later in the day.
At least in the case of the Hill Fire, the location and direction of the blaze are playing to firefighters’ advantage, according to Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen.
“Fortunately for us, it is burning into the old footprint of the Springs Fire of 2013, and the fire activity there has diminished,” he told reporters Friday, adding that this has allowed crews to “focus a little bit more heavily” on the Woolsey Fire instead.
People fleeing that blaze have clogged roadways already prone to traffic. Residents reported miles-long traffic jams along the Pacific Coast Highway, which wends its way through Malibu.
Thousands of cars stood bumper to bumper, trying to ply their way slowly south to safer parts — all while a bank of thick gray smoke crept over the horizon.
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