Five people have been found dead in their burned-out vehicles after a wildfire in northern California incinerated most of a town of about 30,000 people.
Only a day after it began, the blaze near the town of Paradise had grown to nearly 110 square miles and was burning completely out of control.
“There was really no firefight involved,” Scott McLean of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said, explaining that crews gave up attacking the flames and instead helped people get out alive. “These firefighters were in the rescue mode all day yesterday.”
Evacuation orders included the entire city of Malibu, which is home to 13,000, among them some of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
When Paradise was evacuated, the order set off a desperate exodus in which many motorists got stuck in gridlocked traffic and abandoned their vehicles to flee on foot.
People reported seeing much of the community go up in flames, including homes, supermarkets, businesses, restaurants, schools and a retirement centre.
Mr McLean estimated that the lost buildings numbered in the thousands in Paradise, about 180 miles north east of San Francisco.
“Pretty much the community of Paradise is destroyed. It’s that kind of devastation,” he said.
The massive blaze spread north on Friday, prompting officials to order the evacuation of Stirling City and Inskip, two communities north of Paradise along the Sierra Nevada foothills.
The wind-driven flames also spread to the west and reached Chico, a city of 90,000 people. Firefighters were able to stop the fire at the edge of the city, Cal Fire Captain Bill Murphy said.
There were no signs of life on Friday on the road to Paradise except for the occasional bird. A thick, yellow haze from the fire hung in the air and gave the appearance of twilight in the middle of the day.
Strong winds had blown the blackened needles on some evergreens straight to one side. A scorched car with its doors open sat on the hard shoulder.
When the order came to evacuate, it was like the entire town of 27,000 residents decided to leave at once, they said. Fire surrounded the evacuation route and drivers panicked. Some crashed and others left their vehicles by the roadside.
“It was just a wall of fire on each side of us and we could hardly see the road in front of us,” police officer Mark Bass said.
The air in San Francisco was hazy and the smell of smoke overwhelming, prompting officials to declare air quality unhealthy.
They advised older people and children to move physical activities indoors. All people were encouraged to limit their outdoor activities.