Law enforcement authorities in Northern California said late Friday nine people have died in a wildfire, one of three in the state that have leveled more than 6,400 homes and forced widespread evacuations.
The Butte County Sheriff’s office said the victims were mostly found dead in cars or outside their vehicles as they attempted to flee Paradise, a mountain town north of Sacramento. Paradise has been mostly destroyed in a quick-moving fire that forced thousands of residents to leave their homes.
Officials said Friday the fire has destroyed 6,453 homes and another 260 commercial structures and has grown to 362 square kilometers.
The blaze, which broke out Thursday, nearly quadrupled overnight into Friday. Officials say the blaze is only 5 percent contained.
In addition to those found dead in their vehicles, many people in Paradise were forced to abandon their cars, which got stuck in gridlocked traffic, and run for their lives.
Dozens more people were reported missing.
California fire officials said crews gave up fighting the flames Thursday and instead helped people get out alive.
“These firefighters were in the rescue mode all day yesterday,’’ said Capt. Scott McLean of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “The town is devastated, everything is destroyed,” he said.
Paradise, nearly 145 kilometers north of Sacramento, was home to more than 26,000 residents, according to its website.
“Right now, Mother Nature is in charge,” Cal Fire spokesman Bryce Bennet told The Sacramento Bee newspaper.
Evacuations were ordered for the east side of the neighboring town of Chico, a city of about 93,000 people, as flames from the blaze were being driven by 56 kph winds.
An undetermined number of civilians and firefighters have been injured, and Maclean said earlier it could take days to determine the number of fatalities.
California’s acting Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in the northern part of the state to help facilitate rescue and recovery efforts.
The fire, known as the Camp Fire, evolved quickly into the fiercest of the wind-driven fires now plaguing California in what has been one of the worst years for wildfires in the state.
Another fire, known as the Woolsey Fire, prompted officials to call for the voluntary evacuation of some 75,000 homes in Ventura County northwest of Los Angeles, the site of a mass shooting this week in which 12 people were killed.
The mayor of Thousand Oaks, where the mass shooting took place, says that three-quarters of his city is under fire evacuation orders.
Fire officials said strong Santa Ana winds continued to fuel the Woolsey Fire, doubling its size.
The blaze also forced the evacuation of all of Malibu, a city of about 13,000 people that is home to many Hollywood celebrities. The Los Angeles County Fire Department tweeted, “imminent threat!,” as the fire raged through the Santa Monica Mountains toward the ocean.
“If you’ve been told to go, get out of there,” Los Angeles County Sheriff Department Chief John Benedict said.
Also burning further west in Ventura County was the Hill Fire, which fire officials said burned nearly 4,050 hectares by Thursday night. Fire officials said it was also moving toward the ocean.