Tens of thousands of people were ordered to evacuate a fast-moving wildfire that exploded in size Thursday, threatening several Northern California communities and forcing panicked residents to race to help neighbors who had to drive through walls of flames to escape. It was not immediately known if there were injuries or fatalities. “It’s a very dangerous and very serious situation,” Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea told The Associated Press. “I’m driving through fire as we speak. We’re doing everything we can to get people out of the affected areas.” He confirmed reports that evacuees had to abandon their vehicles as they fled the scene. “We’re getting them on other vehicles with room. 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.”
Butte County Sheriff’s spokeswoman Miranda Bowersox said that all of Paradise, a town of about 27,000 people 180 miles (290 kilometers) northeast of San Francisco, was ordered to evacuate. Rick Carhart, a Cal Fire spokesman, said the wildfire was reported at 6:30 a.m., affecting about 30,000 people. “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.”
A hospital and several schools were evacuated as thick grey smoke and ash filled the sky above Paradise and could be seen from miles away. The Adventist Health Feather River Hospital in Paradise evacuated all its patients and staff, given its close proximity to the fire, and transported them safely to hospitals in neighboring towns, said Jill Kinney, an Adventist Health spokeswoman. She said she did not know the exact number of people evacuated.
Groups of fleeing residents gathered in a Kmart parking lot in Paradise, with their dogs and some with horses, waiting to be evacuated, said Shelley Freeman who spoke to a relative and friends in Paradise. The friend told Freeman that all the trees around the store were on fire and there were explosions and thick dark smoke.