2 wildfires devastate California communities

Two fast-moving wildfires, the Camp Fire and Hill Fire, are scorching thousands of acres throughout California, forcing evacuations of residents and pushing the state's acting governor to declare a state of emergency.

Posted: Nov 9, 2018 8:13 PM
Updated: Nov 9, 2018 8:13 PM

One of three major wildfires roaring though California has obliterated 80 to 90% homes in one town and left five people dead, officials said Friday.

The fast-moving wildfires have destroyed thousands of structures and prompted thousands of residents to flee, sometimes through jam-packed flame-lined streets that forced evacuees to chose whether to try to drive to safety or to get out and run.

The large Camp Fire in Northern California left the mayor of Paradise, population 26,000, in shock.

"There's really not much left. There are very few homes still standing and we've been in multiple different neighborhoods this afternoon," Mayor Jody Jones said. She estimated only 10 to 20% of homes are left.

Five people were found dead in vehicles that were overcome by flames, the Butte County Sheriff's Office said.

Two major fires in Southern California are just miles from the bar where 12 people were killed in a mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, and evacuations were ordered for nearby Malibu, a seaside city popular with celebrities.

Fanned by high winds and fueled by low humidity and dry vegetation, the fires spread rapidly Thursday and overnight into Friday. The threat continued Friday, with millions of Californians under "red flag" warnings portending windy arid and warm conditions that pose extreme fire risks.

Here's what we know about the trio of fires:

Camp Fire: People flee 'carrying their babies and kids'

In Northern California, panicked residents began fleeing Paradise on Thursday as the Camp Fire swept through it.

By Friday morning, the town's main road was littered with downed trees and power lines. Much of the brush and grasses were blackened along the valleys, and many trees were still burning, a CNN crew there observed.

A family that evacuated Thursday by driving along flame-lined roads posted a startling video to Facebook. The recording shows fire claiming houses and trees, and sparks blowing across the road in front of them. Suddenly the vehicle breaks through a wall of smoke and emerges into the safety of a clear road.

Jones, the mayor, said a good portion of the business district is gone. And while some trees were torched, Jones said most of them remain.

"One of the things that's beautiful about Paradise are the trees and they're still here. ... I wasn't expecting that, but it's a good thing," Jones said.

At least 40,000 residents were forced to evacuate from Butte County as the fire burned 70,000 acres.

Flames also were on the outer edges of Chico, a city of 93,000 people about a 90-mile drive north of Sacramento.

The full extent of the destruction in the county was still unknown, but authorities said they believe as many as 2,000 buildings have been destroyed -- most of those in Paradise.

Whitney Vaughan described a scene of panic and terror as she recalled her narrow escape from her Paradise home Thursday morning.

Vaughan and her husband had just fled their home as flames rushed them. She saw a man "sprinting past our house carrying a little baby, running as fast as he could."

They drove away but got eventually got caught in traffic. Flames were feet away, smoke was thick, cars weren't moving and people were panicking. Some people left their cars there "and took off running, carrying their babies and kids."

She cried as she recorded video of the terrifying scene, which she posted to Facebook. She and her husband eventually were able to drive away safely.

"We thought the fire was going to kill us," she told CNN.

Paradise, roughly 80 miles north of Sacramento, is where at least five people were found dead in their vehicles on a road near where Vaughan recorded her video.

The blaze burned Western Town at Paramount Ranch, according to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, a unit of the National Park Service. The buildings were seen in movies and television series such as "Westworld" and "The Cisco Kid."

Three firefighters and some civilians have been injured, Cal Fire officials said. The extent of their injuries is unknown.

More than 2,200 firefighters were battling the flames and the fire remained uncontained, according to Cal Fire.

Woolsey Fire: Thousands of homes evacuated, Malibu area threatened

In Southern California, strong Santa Ana winds were fanning two fires, including the Woolsey Fire, which by Friday morning had burned across US 101 and was heading toward Malibu.

The Woolsey Fire exploded from 2,000 acres to 8,000 in Los Angeles and Ventura counties in a matter of hours. Friday evening, officials said it had grown to 35,000 acres.

At least 75,000 homes in Ventura and Los Angeles counties were under evacuation orders, and some structures have already been destroyed, officials said.

The fire crossed US 101 a few miles east of Thousand Oaks -- the site of Wednesday night's bar shooting -- and was headed south to the Pacific coast, in the direction of Malibu Creek State Park and Malibu city, the Los Angeles County Fire Department said.

And in part of Malibu itself -- a city of about 12,000 people known for beachside homes owned by celebrities and millionaires -- a mandatory evacuation was issued Friday.

In Malibu, journalist Julie Ellerton said she was calmly packing Friday morning after staying up all night.

Ellerton, in an email to CNN, said it was strange to go from covering events related to Wednesday's shooting "to looking up in the afternoon and seeing plumes of smoke."

"My heart's still with those suffering the loss of their children, their husband and their dad. I can't think anything matters more -- packing 'items' seems strange. The smoke just seems surreal," she wrote.

In Hidden Hills, just north of Calabasas, Adrienne Janic gave her home over to firefighters late Thursday to use as a command center. Her deck provided a strong vantage point to monitor the spread of the fire.

By 1 a.m. (4 a.m. ET), more firefighters arrived as the flames closed in on Janic's street

"While a lot of my yard and neighbors' yards burned, the firefighters saved our homes," Janic tweeted just after 2 a.m. (5 a.m. ET) Friday. "We are still not out of the woods yet."

Christy Dawn Little abandoned her Oak Park home, northeast of Thousand Oaks, around 11 p.m. (2 a.m. ET).

"I had to work this evening, and ran out when I realized how close it was," Little told CNN. "We have found a safe hotel ... (in) Los Angeles."

Video of her drive out of town shows the fire emitting an orange-red glow in the distance in the nighttime sky.

Hill Fire: RVs, outbuildings burned

The Hill Fire is the other fire burning near the site of this week's mass shooting in Thousand Oaks.

The fire started Thursday afternoon and spread quickly to cover about 6,000 acres, fire officials said. Friday, part of it was burning into the footprint of a 2013 wildfire, which could slow its spread, Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said.

Residents on social media posted their views of the flames nearly consuming the hillside in the Newbury Park area of western Thousand Oaks.

While no homes or businesses have been lost to the fast-moving blaze, a number of RVs and outbuildings have been burned and a firefighter suffered a minor injury, authorities said.

Howling Santa Ana winds were driving the Woolsey and Hill fires. The Santa Anas are strong, dry winds that high-pressure systems push from east to west, from the mountains and desert areas down into the Los Angeles area.

Wind gusts of up to 77 mph were reported in Los Angeles County on Friday morning.

A round of Santa Ana winds is forecast to whip the area Sunday through Tuesday, though it may be weaker than Friday's.

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