A Northern California fire has forced 40,000 residents to flee from walls of flames

Posted at 6:21 AM, Nov 09, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-09 06:21:06-05

(CNN) — Tanah Clunies-Ross woke up in the dark to what sounded like lumps of coal raining down her Northern California home. Within minutes, her family and thousands of people were racing to escape the raging flames of the Camp Fire.

“The smell of the smoke and realizing the smoke was a lot closer than I thought and then seeing flames up to my knees. … I lost it,” she said.

The fire broke out early Thursday morning, “growing uncontrollably” across Butte County, California, at a rate of about 80 football fields per minute. So far, it has burned through 20,000 acres, injured firefighters and residents and prompted hospitals and schools to quickly evacuate.

A red flag warning is in effect through Friday morning, meaning that firefighters face high winds and low humidity that help spread the wildfire. Winds are expected to ease Friday morning but a second round of gusty winds is forecast to develop Saturday night into Sunday, CNN Meteorologist Haley Brink said.

Late Thursday, more than 2,200 firefighters were battling the flames and the Camp Fire remains completely uncontained, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).

The wildfire has spread from rural to populated areas, going from Pulga to Concow and down to Paradise, a town of 26,000 people about 85 miles north of Sacramento.

Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom has declared a state of emergency in the area and has requested federal funds to help those impacted by wildfires in the state. He said approximately 40,000 residents in Butte County have been evacuated due to the Camp Fire.

Newsom is serving as acting governor while Gov. Jerry Brown is traveling out of state.

The full extent of the destruction is still unknown but authorities believe up to 1,000 structures have been destroyed and most of those were in Paradise, a Cal Fire spokesman said.

There are multiple injuries because of the Camp Fire, Cal Fire spokesman John Gaddie said. The injured include civilians and firefighters, but the extent of their injuries are unknown.

Authorities fear the fire, fueled by winds, would reach the city of Chico — a city of 90,000 people where many Butte County families already have evacuated to shelters.

A shelter at the Neighborhood Church in Chico was full Thursday night and authorities were directing people to the Oroville Nazarene Church and the Butte County Fairgrounds.

Hoping to just get out

Clunies-Ross stayed behind to gather essentials not realizing how quickly danger was approaching, she says.

Her front lawn was on fire in about 30 minutes and she could not make it to her car.

Then, a man she had never seen before in her hometown of Paradise, California, appeared. He started putting out the fire and yelled at her to get back inside, she says. When she came back out he was gone and so was the fire.

“Had he not put out that fire, I would not have made it to the car,” she said.

But she was still a long distance from safety.

She drove under a golden-red sky to the main road that runs through Paradise. Already cars were bumper to bumper, she says. On the side of the road, trees were catching on fire and falling over.

“I’m on the phone crying, talking to my husband, just hoping I can get out of there,” she said.

Chuck Kambourian’s wife was about to drive their children to school when they got caught by the fire.

His wife was trying the four roads that lead out of Paradise. One of them was on fire, and some cars were driving through it, but she didn’t want to chance it with the children in the car, he said. Another one was also up in flames, and the other led in the direction of the wildfire.

Finally, she made it out and the family reunited in Chico.

“There was a big, giant wall of fire on the side of the car,” Kambourian said of his wife’s evacuation. “She was finally able to get through there and I think they closed it right before she got out.”

Kambourian said he started getting text messages from his church group on Thursday morning saying a fire had broken out in his hometown of Paradise. He was about 30 minutes away in Chico, where he works as a pharmacist.

He immediately started driving back to find his wife and three children. But the roads were blocked, so he had to wait on a road outside of town.

More large fires threatening California

More than 20 million people are under red flag warnings from Northern to Southern California on Friday due to several wildfires across the state.

In Ventura County, two wildfires that broke out Thursday are threatening thousands of people. Down the road from the Thousand Oaks shooting, the Hill Fire has quickly spread to cover between 8,000 and 10,000 acres, Ventura County Fire Department officials said.

Just 12 minutes after it started Thursday afternoon, the flames spread across the 101 Freeway leaving several drivers temporarily stranded. The highway is expected to remain closed into Friday morning, Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said.

While no homes or businesses have been lost due to the fast-moving fire, a number of RVs and outbuildings have been burned and a firefighter suffered a minor injury, authorities said.

Fire officials anticipate the fire would reach the Pacific Ocean.

A second smaller fire, dubbed the Woosley Fire, also started Thursday and has burned 2,000 acres. The blaze continued burning late Thursday, prompting authorities to evacuate residents near the Los Angeles County line.