Nine people were declared dead and tens of thousands evacuated Friday as fierce wildfires raged across the western US state of California, with one rapidly spreading blaze threatening the famed resort of Malibu.
All of the fatalities were reported in a massive late-season inferno in the town of Paradise, in Butte County north of the state capital Sacramento, where the entire population of 26,000 was ordered to leave, officials said.
The fast moving blaze, known as the “Camp Fire,” began Thursday morning. Fanned by strong winds, it has scorched 70,000 acres (28,300 hectares) and has not been contained, the California Fire Department (Cal Fire) said.
Two other fires broke out in southern California, one in Ventura County near Thousand Oaks, where a Marine Corps veteran shot dead 12 people in a country music bar on Wednesday night.
“The magnitude of destruction we have seen is really unbelievable and heartbreaking and our hearts go to everybody who has been affected by this,” said Mark Ghilarducci, the director of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.
Late Friday Butte County Sheriff Korey Honea updated the Camp Fire death toll.
“It’s my sad duty to confirm that we now have a total of nine fatalities,” he said, four more fatalities beyond the five reported earlier.
Details were limited, and Honea did not release names of the victims.
“I don’t have all of the details because we have investigators out on the field attempting to get to those locations” where the casualties were reported, Honea said at a press conference.
But he did say that four people were found inside a vehicle in the Paradise area, while another was found nearby outside the vehicle. Three more were found outside a residence, and one inside a house.
Dozens of other people were reported missing.
– Harrowing escapes –
Residents who managed to escape Paradise posted harrowing videos to social media as they drove through tunnels of swirling smoke and orange flames to outrun the wildfire.
The flames destroyed hundreds of homes, a hospital, a gas station, several restaurants and numerous vehicles in Paradise, officials said.
An AFP photographer on the scene saw houses enveloped in flames, while others had already been reduced to ashes and cars burned to husks.
Authorities issued mandatory evacuation orders for more than 52,000 people in the scenic area in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, including some residents of Chico, population 93,000, near Paradise.
California Governor-elect Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency to provide assistance to the fire-hit areas.
More than 2,200 firefighters were battling the blaze, backed up by helicopters and water tankers.
“The whole lower side of Paradise is totally engulfed in flames right now,” Kevin Winstead, a resident of nearby Magalia, told KIEM TV. “All of it is engulfed in flames right now.
“Not one home will be left standing,” he said. “I’m devastated.”
“We’re just hoping that our brand new home that we were hoping to move into tomorrow is not burned to the ground,” Winstead said. “We’re kind of all shaking right now.”
– ‘I pray everyone is safe’ –
In southern California, authorities said around 105,000 people had been evacuated.
The Ventura County Fire Department said the “Woolsey Fire” had burned around 35,000 acres, and evacuation orders were issued for some 88,000 homes in the county and neighboring Los Angeles County.
“It is critical that residents pay close attention to evacuation orders,” the Los Angeles County Fire Department said on Twitter. “This is a very dangerous wind-driven fire.”
The “Woolsey Fire” has jumped Highway 101 near the town of Agoura Hills and portions of the main coastal north-south artery have been shut down, triggering mandatory evacuations, including the entire city of Malibu.
“We heard this was coming so we set up on the sprinklers and we hosed the whole house down,” said Patrick Henry, a Malibu resident. “We pretty much had enough time to get the dogs in the trunk.”
The resort is one of the most in-demand locations in California for Hollywood stars seeking privacy and luxury, and has been home to Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, Jennifer Aniston, Halle Berry, Charlize Theron, Brad Pitt and a host of other celebrities.
Reality TV star Kim Kardashian West, who lives just north of coastal Malibu in Calabasas, revealed on Instagram that she was forced to flee her home.
“Just landed back home and had 1 hour to pack up & evacuate our home. I pray everyone is safe,” she said.
Actress Alyssa Milano, one of Kardashian’s neighbors in Calabasas, wrote on Twitter that she was also evacuated.
“Horses are finally safe. My children are safe. My home is in jeopardy but… everything with a heartbeat is safe,” she said.
Director Guillermo del Toro tweeted that Bleak House, his museum of horror movie memorabilia, was also in the path of the flames.