Monday, 30th October 2017

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Forced out by fire, trapped in traffic

It was hot, it was smokey and it was apocalyptic, says firestorm survivor

By Jack Nicas, Thomas Fuller and Tim Arango/NYTNS in Paradise (California)
  • Published 13.11.18, 2:36 AM
  • Updated 10.12.18, 12:34 PM
  • 3 mins read
Scorched state: A power line lies on top of burnt vehicles on the side of the road in Paradise, California, after the Camp fire tore through the area on November 10, 2018. AFP

Thousands of residents in the wooded town of Paradise did what they were told to do when the morning skies turned dark and an inferno raged across the hills: They got in their cars and fled. What happened next was the vehicular equivalent of a stampede, packing the roads to a standstill.

In the hours after the devastating wildfire broke out around Paradise on Thursday morning, tree-lined streets in the town swiftly became tunnels of fire, blocked by fallen power lines and burning timber.

Frantic residents, encircled by choking dense smoke and swirling embers, ran out of petrol and ditched their cars. Fire crews struggling to reach the town used giant earthmovers to plough abandoned vehicles off the road as if they were snowdrifts after a blizzard.

By Sunday night, the Camp Fire had matched the deadliest in California history, the Griffith Park Fire of 1933, with 29 fatalities. Seven of the victims in Paradise died in their vehicles.

Farther south near Los Angeles, where another vast fire continued its destruction, a mass evacuation was also all but halted at times by snarled roads. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said that two bodies had been found severely burned inside a stopped vehicle on a long, narrow driveway in Malibu.

At a news conference late on Sunday, Sheriff Kory L. Honea of Butte County said that 228 people were still unaccounted for in Northern California; state officials said they were not aware of anyone missing in connection to fires in the south. Statewide, about 149,000 were still under orders to leave their homes.

Again and again in California’s battle with wildfires, roads have emerged as a major vulnerability for those escaping.

There was only one way out of Paradise for residents fleeing the fire, the four-lane road known as Skyway, which quickly became paralysed by traffic, a situation similar to what residents of Malibu endured along the Pacific Coast Highway, another choke point.

Lauri Kester, a caretaker for the elderly in Paradise, said it had taken an hour to drive 5km on Thursday as the firestorm ripped through the town.

“There were cars behind, cars in front and fire on both sides,” Kester said. A police officer running past her told her to abandon her Subaru. So Kester, 52, ran down the road with her dog, Biscuit, in her arms. “I thought, ‘This is not how I want to die,’” Kester recalled on Sunday morning in Chico, smoking a cigarette on a folding chair outside a gold-domed church sheltering refugees. “It was hot, it was smokey and — this sounds like such an exaggeration, but — it was apocalyptic.”

California was still battling three major fires on Sunday: the Camp Fire, which exploded across 111,000 acres and is still raging in the forests near Paradise, and two fires west of Los Angeles. With Santa Ana winds gusting through the hills of Malibu and towards the coast, firefighters battling the Woolsey Fire in Southern California were preparing for it to get worse over the next few days. The Hill Fire, which is farther inland, was about 70 per cent contained.

“We are really just in the middle of this protracted weather event and this fire siege,” Chief Ken Pimlott of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said at a news conference on Sunday night.

During a drive north on Sunday on the Pacific Coast Highway, which is closed in both directions to non-emergency personnel, the shimmering waters of the Pacific could be seen on one side, and on the other, steep cliffs and rocky hillsides with patches of black, charred earth. In other sections of the highway, brush was scorched on both sides and power lines and burned fence posts were down where just a couple of days ago the fire had jumped the roadway and run up to the beach.

As wildfires have grown in size and ferocity in recent years, identifying escape routes has become a priority.

The mayor of Paradise, Jody Jones, is a traffic specialist who spent years working as a regional manager for the California department of transportation. After a wildfire tore through the area in 2008, Paradise put together a detailed plan, hoping to make emergency evacuations swift and orderly.