OROVILLE, Calif. – Tens of thousands of people fled a fast-moving wildfire Thursday in Northern California, some clutching babies and pets as they abandoned vehicles and struck out on foot ahead of the flames that forced the evacuation of an entire town.
Everyone in Paradise, a community of 27,000 people about 180 miles (290 kilometers) northeast of San Francisco, was ordered to get out. As she fled, Gina Oviedo described a devastating scene in which flames engulfed homes, sparked explosions and toppled utility poles.
“Things started exploding,” Oviedo said. “People started getting out of their vehicles and running.”
Authorities were working on a plan to remove patients from a hospital after rescuers had to turn back because of gridlocked traffic.
“It’s a very dangerous and very serious situation,” Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said. “I’m driving through fire as we speak. We’re doing everything we can to get people out of the affected areas.”
Shari Bernacett said her husband tried to get people to leave the Paradise mobile home park they manage and had minutes to evacuate.
He “knocked on doors, yelled and screamed” to alert as many residents as possible, Bernacett said.
“My husband tried his best to get everybody out. The whole hill’s on fire. God help us!” she said before breaking down crying. She and her husband grabbed their dog, jumped in their pickup truck and drove through flames before getting to safety, she said.
Officials were sending as many firefighters as they could, Cal Fire spokesman Rick Carhart said.
“Every engine that we could put on the fire is on the fire right now, and more are coming,” he said. “There are dozens of strike teams that we’re bringing in from all parts of the state.”
The blaze destroyed an unknown number of structures and injured some people, but the extent of the injuries was not immediately known, said Capt. John Gaddie of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
The sheriff confirmed reports that evacuees had to abandon their vehicles. He said rescuers were trying to put them in other vehicles.
“We’re working very hard to get people out. The message I want to get out is if you can evacuate, you need to evacuate,” Honea said.
The wildfire was reported around daybreak. Within six hours, it had grown to more than 26 square miles (69 square kilometers), Gaddie said.
“The blaze is being driven by fairly strong winds,” Carhart said. “It’s really dry and we have low humidity, and unfortunately those are great conditions for a fire to spread.”
Thick grey smoke and ash filled the sky above Paradise and could be seen from miles away.
At the hospital with the stranded patients, some buildings caught fire and were damaged, but the main facility, Adventist Health Feather River Hospital, was not, spokeswoman Jill Kinney said.
Four hospital employees were briefly trapped in the basement and rescued by California Highway Patrol officers, Kinney said.
More than 40 patients were evacuated to other facilities. Twenty others were still awaiting rescue.
The National Weather Service issued red-flag warnings for fire dangers in many areas of the state, saying low humidity and strong winds were expected to continue through Friday evening.
Associated Press writers Paul Elias, Jocelyn Gecker and Olga R. Rodriguez in San Francisco and Sophia Bollag in Sacramento contributed to this report.