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Camp Fire devastates Paradise near Chico — hospital, church, businesses, numerous homes burn

SF Gate logo SF Gate 11/9/2018 By Megan Cassidy, Gwendolyn Wu, Kurtis Alexander and Erin Allday

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PARADISE, Butte County — More than 30,000 people fled for their lives Thursday as a late-season wildfire swept across this town in the Sierra foothills, incinerating numerous homes and businesses and prompting desperate rescues of residents trapped inside buildings and on clogged evacuation routes.

The blaze exploded to more than 18,000 acres in just the first eight hours, adding to a catastrophic two years of wildfires in California that have raised new questions about how the state will cope with a warmer and drier climate.

a building with a sunset in the background: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints burns during Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif.. on Thursday, November 8, 2018.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints burns during Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif.. on Thursday, November 8, 2018.
© Provided by Hearst Newspapers

Smoke turned the daytime sky black in the community of 27,000 that sits 15 miles east of Chico and 80 miles north of Sacramento. Authorities raced to evacuate a hospital, which caught fire, while calling in hundreds of firefighters from across the region to attack the flames from the ground and by air.

Among the structures lost to the flames were a McDonald’s, a Mormon church, a Black Bear Diner and the town’s wood welcome sign. Streams of residents hurried out of town, inching along the few available routes. As the day wore on, family members and friends searched for scores of missing people.

The cause of the fire, which ignited at 6:30 a.m., was under investigation. Authorities released no immediate information about the extent of the damage, injuries or potential fatalities.

Evacuation efforts were “difficult, to say the least,” said Lt. Al Smith of the Butte County Sheriff’s Office, noting that several deputies who ventured into evacuation zones to rescue residents also became trapped by flames burning around them. “I can’t think of an area that’s safe right now.”

The blaze, named the Camp Fire because of its proximity to Camp Creek Road near Highway 70 in the Feather River Canyon, was scorching several areas within Paradise, which is home to many retirees. By Thursday afternoon, it was moving west toward Chico. Acting Gov. Gavin Newsom, filling in while Gov. Jerry Brown traveled out of state, declared a state of emergency in Butte County. Firefighters spent the morning trying to evacuate trapped Paradise residents while creating firebreaks within the town and even moving some people to empty parking lots.

“In the past few years, just the way fires have moved, firefighters have had to help with evacuations before they can go back in to put out the fire,” said Lynne Tolmachoff, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire. Jennifer Broussard, 41, woke to thunder — or at least that’s the fire sounded like, she said.

She and her husband Ryan, 50, left their home in a rush. Both in their pajamas, there was no time to change into anything else. Police were everywhere shouting, “Move! Go! Get out!”

Driving away, Broussard recalled that she probably would have gotten a ticket for speeding any other time.

She moved from Los Angeles to Paradise 20 years ago, and she was surprised upon arriving in town how clear the stars were at night. But in the daytime Thursday, she couldn’t see anything except black smoke obscuring the sun and sky.

“The simple things we take for granted,” Broussard said at an evacuation shelter in Oroville. She tapped ash from her cigarette on the concrete and said, “That is a whole town gone.”

As of 4 p.m., the Camp Fire had no containment.

High winds were hampering air tankers’ efforts to extinguish the flames, said Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean. The main air attack was coming from helicopters dropping water on the fire, but planes struggled to help as erratic winds and a thick layer of smoke obscured the ground.

Kendra Luck evacuated with her father and stepmother a few hours after the fire started. Her stepmother spotted flames shooting up a hillside just outside of town around 8 a.m., and the three of them started packing.

An hour later, the smoke was so dense that they were turning lights on in the house and the sky was an eerie — but familiar — red glow. Her father and stepmother have lived in the same house in Paradise for 16 years and this was their third fire evacuation.

“They’re getting used to this,” said Luck, a former Chronicle photographer. “Everything was glowing that fire red. That was enough for them, so we just packed up and left.

“I didn’t see flames on the drive, but you could see the red flow across the canyon on the hillside. And the smoke was more than just smoke — it had that glow going,” she said. “It was definitely raining ash all morning.”

The family drove out of town early enough to avoid the crush of traffic.

The Butte County towns of Paradise, Pulga and Concow were evacuated shortly after the fire started. Cal Fire officials said residents of Magalia, Butte Creek Canyon and Butte Valley had also been ordered to leave.

The Paradise Unified School District and Butte College closed their doors Thursday morning under evacuation orders from fire officials. Feather River Hospital in Paradise was also evacuated after the fire jumped a road leading to the hospital. The older section of the building was engulfed in flames, officials said.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. reported that 34,280 customers in Butte County and neighboring Plumas County had lost power.

Engines from the San Francisco Fire Department, Santa Rosa Fire Department and multiple other California agencies are aiding Butte County firefighters with the response.

A smoke advisory was issued for the entire Bay Area through Friday, air district officials said, and residents can expect to see or smell smoke from the blaze.

Megan Cassidy, Gwendolyn Wu, Kurtis Alexander and Erin Allday are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: megan.cassidy@sfchronicle.com, gwendolyn.wu@sfchronicle.com, kalexander@sfchronicle.com, eallday@schronicle.com Twitter: @meganrcassidy @gwendolynawu @kurtisalexander @erinallday

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