3 people dead as firefighters battle Northern California wildfires

Fire chief says personnel focused on saving lives rather than halting flames as inferno burns 25-mile path of destruction; thousands forced to flee their homes

  • Flames lick above vehicles on Highway 162 as the Bear Fire burns in Oroville, California, on Sept. 9, 2020 (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
    Flames lick above vehicles on Highway 162 as the Bear Fire burns in Oroville, California, on Sept. 9, 2020 (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
  • Cars drive along the San Francisco Bay Bridge under an orange smoke filled sky at midday in San Francisco, California on September 9, 2020  (Harold POSTIC / AFP)
    Cars drive along the San Francisco Bay Bridge under an orange smoke filled sky at midday in San Francisco, California on September 9, 2020 (Harold POSTIC / AFP)
  • Firefighters monitor the Bear Fire burning in Oroville, California on Sept. 9, 2020 (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
    Firefighters monitor the Bear Fire burning in Oroville, California on Sept. 9, 2020 (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
  • Law enforcement and fire personnel wait on the Enterprise Bridge to enter an area encroached by fire during the Bear fire, part of the North Lightning Complex fires, in unincorporated Butte County, in Oroville, California on September 9, 2020 (JOSH EDELSON / AFP)
    Law enforcement and fire personnel wait on the Enterprise Bridge to enter an area encroached by fire during the Bear fire, part of the North Lightning Complex fires, in unincorporated Butte County, in Oroville, California on September 9, 2020 (JOSH EDELSON / AFP)
  • Flames consume a home and car as the Bear Fire burns through the Berry Creek area of Butte County, California on Sept. 9, 2020 (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
    Flames consume a home and car as the Bear Fire burns through the Berry Creek area of Butte County, California on Sept. 9, 2020 (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
  • A table stands outside the destroyed Cressman's General Store after the Creek Fire burned through Fresno County, California on Sept. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
    A table stands outside the destroyed Cressman's General Store after the Creek Fire burned through Fresno County, California on Sept. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
  • People in kayaks paddle in McCovey Cove outside Oracle Park during the sixth inning of a baseball game between the San Francisco Giants and the Seattle Mariners on Sept. 9, 2020, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
    People in kayaks paddle in McCovey Cove outside Oracle Park during the sixth inning of a baseball game between the San Francisco Giants and the Seattle Mariners on Sept. 9, 2020, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
  • A scorched car rests in a clearing following the Bear Fire in Butte County, California, Sept. 9, 2020 (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
    A scorched car rests in a clearing following the Bear Fire in Butte County, California, Sept. 9, 2020 (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
  • A plume rises from the Bear Fire as it burns along Lake Oroville on Sept. 9, 2020, in Butte County, California (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
    A plume rises from the Bear Fire as it burns along Lake Oroville on Sept. 9, 2020, in Butte County, California (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

OROVILLE, Calilf. (AP) — Three people died in a wind-whipped Northern California wildfire that has forced thousands of people from their homes while carving a 25-mile path of destruction through mountainous terrain and parched foothills, authorities said Wednesday.

California Highway Patrol Officer Ben Draper told the Bay Area News Group that one person was found in a car and apparently had been trying to escape the flames.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of homes and other buildings are believed to have been damaged or destroyed by the blaze northeast of San Francisco, fire officials said at an evening news conference.

The fire has also threatened Paradise, a town devastated just two years ago by the deadliest blaze in state history that prompted a traffic jam as panicked residents tried to escape.

People photograph the darkened Golden Gate Bridge covered with smoke from wildfires, Sept. 9, 2020, from a pier at Fort Baker near Sausalito, California. The photo was taken at 9:47 a.m. in the morning. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

The North Complex fire was one of more than two dozen burning in the California. including three of the five largest ever in the state. Other wildfires charred huge swaths of the West amid gusty, dry conditions. Forecasters said some weather relief was in sight and could help firefighters overwhelmed by the blazes.

In Washington, more acres burned in a single day than firefighters usually see all year. Fires also forced people to flee homes in Oregon and Idaho. A blast of polar air helped slow wildfires in Colorado and Montana.

Since the middle of August, fires in California have killed 11 people, destroyed more than 3,600 structures, burned old growth redwoods, charred chaparral and forced evacuations in communities near the coast, in wine country and along the Sierra Nevada.

A scorched car rests in a clearing following the Bear Fire in Butte County, California, Sept. 9, 2020 (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Thick smoke Wednesday choked much of the state and cast an eerie orange hue across the sky as thousands of people in communities near Oroville were ordered to evacuate.

Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, conservatively estimated the fire had burned about 400 square miles (1,036 square kilometers) in 24 hours.

“The unbelievable rates of spread now being observed on these fires — it is historically unprecedented,” Swain tweeted.

A plume rises from the Bear Fire as it burns along Lake Oroville on Sept. 9, 2020, in Butte County, California (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

The US Forest Service, which had taken the unprecedented measure of closing eight national forests in Southern California earlier in the week, ordered all 18 of its forests in the state closed Wednesday for public safety.

The fire raging outside Oroville, 125 miles (200 kilometers) northeast of San Francisco, jumped the middle fork of the Feather River on Tuesday and, driven by 45 mph (72 km/h) winds, leapt into a canopy of pines and burned all the way to Lake Oroville — about 25 miles (40 kilometers), said Jake Cagle, one of the fire chiefs involved.

The fire had been 62 square miles (160 square kilometers) and 50% contained before it grew more than sixfold.

Firefighters were focused on saving lives and homes instead of trying to halt the fire’s advance, Cagle said.

Firefighters monitor the Bear Fire burning in Oroville, California on Sept. 9, 2020 (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

The fire tore into several hamlets along the river and near Lake Oroville, leveling countless homes and other buildings, said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

“We know that the fire was burning incredibly rapidly into Berry Creek and did do a lot of destruction,” Berlant said.

In Paradise, where 85 people lost their lives and nearly 19,000 buildings were destroyed, the sky turned from black to cherry red and ash carried on strong winds rained down in a scene reminiscent from the fateful morning of Nov. 8, 2018, former Mayor Steve “Woody” Culleton said.

Flames consume a home and car as the Bear Fire burns through the Berry Creek area of Butte County, California on Sept. 9, 2020 (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

“It was extremely frightening and ugly,” Culleton said. “Everybody has PTSD and what not, so it triggered everybody and caused terror and panic.”

A power shutoff to prevent electric lines from sparking wildfires — the cause of the Paradise fire — prevented people from getting up-to-date information by internet, TV or their home phones, Culleton said. Many of the residents decided to leave and created a traffic jam leading out of town, another scary reminder of the bottleneck where several residents died two years ago.

On Tuesday, flames overtook 14 firefighters who had to deploy last-resort emergency shelters trying to protect a mountaintop fire station above Big Sur on California’s central coast. Three suffered burns and smoke inhalation. However, one firefighter who was in critical condition was upgraded to stable condition and the other two were treated and released from a Fresno hospital, the US Forest Service said.

A table stands outside the destroyed Cressman’s General Store after the Creek Fire burned through Fresno County, California on Sept. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

That fire, which had doubled overnight Tuesday and burned terrain that hadn’t seen fire in 40 years, destroyed an office, two fire engines, barracks and all the firefighters’ personal belongings inside.

In Southern California, fires burned in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Diego counties. People in foothill communities east of Los Angeles were warned to be ready to flee, but the region’s notorious Santa Ana winds were weaker than predicted.

People in kayaks paddle in McCovey Cove outside Oracle Park during the sixth inning of a baseball game between the San Francisco Giants and the Seattle Mariners on Sept. 9, 2020, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

“We’re encouraged that the wind activity appears to be dying down,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said. “The rest of the week looks a little more favorable.”

California has set a record with nearly 2.5 million acres (1 million hectares) burned already this year, and historically the worst of the wildfire season doesn’t begin until fall.

Jason Anderson, 42, takes pictures as the sun is visible through thick smoke generated by the Bobcat Fire in San Dimas, California Sept. 9, 2020 (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Pacific Gas & Electric deployed more than 3,000 employees Wednesday to inspect power lines before restoring energy to about 167,000 customers whose electricity was turned off to prevent fires from being started by wind-damaged wires. The utility had restored power to about 85 percent of those customers by evening.

Only a very small number of customers had power turned off in Southern California.

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