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'Mass devastation' as fire destroys at least 1,000 structures in Northern California town of Paradise

Paige St. John and Anna M. Phillips, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

OROVILLE, Calif. -- In what officials described as "mass devastation," at least 1,000 structures were lost Thursday when a fire swept through the Northern California town of Paradise, forcing residents to run for their lives.

The Butte County fire exploded from 10 acres to more than 10,000 acres in a matter of hours, taking direct aim at the town of 27,000 known as a popular retirement community.

"It has destroyed the town," said Scott McLean, a Cal Fire spokesman.

As people raced to safety, roads became choked with traffic, forcing some to flee on foot as the fire engulfed nearby homes and buildings. One hospital was evacuated -- its patients were taken to nearby medical facilities -- and parts of its campus were damaged by the flames.

Named the Camp fire because it began near Camp Creek Road in Butte County, the blaze was first reported around 6:30 a.m., according to a spokesman with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. By midday, the fire had burned 18,000 acres and was continuing to grow.

Its rapid spread spurred acting California Gov. Gavin Newsom -- who is filling in while Gov. Jerry Brown is out of state -- to declare a state of emergency for Butte County. Hours after the Camp fire began, the same gusty winds caused another wildfire to erupt in Southern California, threatening homes in Ventura County.

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In Butte County, residents in several towns hugging California 70 near the Plumas National Forest were ordered to evacuate and the highway was closed. In addition to Paradise, people in Concow, Pulga, Magalia, Butte Creek Canyon and Butte Valley were told to leave their homes, according to the Butte County Sheriff's Office. Butte College was closed and turned into a command center for firefighters and other emergency workers.

Multiple evacuation centers were opened in churches and on fairgrounds in nearby towns.

Thousands of motorists spilled onto local roadways, following recently redesigned evacuation routes intended to make it easier for them to escape. Yet many wound up sitting in gridlock.

"I saw a steady line of cars, bumper to bumper, trying to get out of Paradise," said Shaaron Vogel, 67, a member of the nursing faculty at Butte College. "Watching the drivers that were trying to get away was horrifying because you could see their faces and how scared they were. It really brings it home how many lives it's affected. And so fast."

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