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Residents flee ‘catastrophic’ wildfire in Northern California

In Northern California, the town of Paradise has been ravaged by a fast-moving wildfire. Officials say a campfire started the blaze, which has grown to cover more than 70,000 acres and destroyed buildings and cars in its path. William Brangham reports, and Amna Nawaz speaks with KQED's Jeremy Siegel for details on the 'increased intensity and increased frequency' of California wildfires.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Fires across California are wreaking havoc and devastating communities. The so-called Camp Fire, north of Sacramento, has so far left five people dead, and has grown to more than 100 square miles.

    In Southern California, 150,000 people have been ordered to evacuate.

    William Brangham starts us off.

  • William Brangham:

    This is the Northern California town of Paradise, completely ravaged by a sudden, devastating wildfire.

  • Woman:

    We lost everything, trailers, all our belongings.

  • William Brangham:

    Fire officials say it began as a campfire that grew out of control, and quickly burned several thousand structures in its path as it spread across Butte County, which is about 100 miles north of Sacramento.

    The fast-moving flames quickly forced officials to order the entire community of 27,000 people to evacuate yesterday.

  • Man:

    Basically, the whole town's on fire right now.

  • William Brangham:

    The smoke turning early afternoon into what seemed like pitch-black night. Panicked residents fled by car, only to find themselves stuck in chaotic traffic jams.

  • Man:

    There's definitely burning on all sides of us on the way out here.

  • William Brangham:

    Some abandoned their vehicles and ran for their lives, as wind gusts up to 33 miles per hour fed the flames. But, today, officials said they have already found bodies among the burned-out cars.

  • Mark Bass:

    It looks like the fire came from the east and just came straight through town all the way to the west. Big box stores, McDonald's Safeway, other — subways, buildings, offices all along Clark Road completely engulfed or gone.

  • Man:

    Southbound from Feather River Hospital on Pentz is all blocked by fire.

  • William Brangham:

    Tamara Ferguson, a nurse at a nearby hospital, shared this video as the fire closed in, trapping staff and patients inside.

    In a Facebook post, she wrote her goodbye to her family and friends.

    Fortunately, local police were able to evacuate the hospital soon after, rescuing every patient and staffer, including Ferguson.

    So far, the fire's burned more than 70,000 acres, and new evacuations were ordered today.

    State officials described catastrophic losses, and said rescue efforts were ongoing.

  • Mark Ghilarducci:

    The magnitude of the destruction that we're seeing is really, again, unbelievable. And fire weather conditions are extreme and we're seeing it from literally border to border.

  • William Brangham:

    In Southern California, 60-mile-an-hour gusts from intense Santa Ana winds have fueled what began as two small brushfires into fast-moving flames that quickly scorched a combined 20,000 acres.

    The two blazes, the Woolsey and Hill fires, are continuing to tear through forests and communities about 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles. They have burned around 75 homes and forced residents to flee as the flames push toward the Pacific Ocean.

  • Woman:

    It's just devastating, what you take for granted every day. being able to come home and rest your head on a bed. And it's gone.

  • William Brangham:

    Just before dawn today, the Woosley Fire jumped a major artery here, Highway 101, forcing new evacuation orders for the entire beachside community of Malibu and its 13,000 residents.

  • David Richardson:

    We ask that our community members heed our direction and warning, leave early. Each of our communities should be ready to pack up and leave at a moment's notice.

  • William Brangham:

    Along the border of Ventura and Los Angeles Counties, more than 75,000 homes are under evacuation orders. That includes the city of Thousand Oaks, still reeling from the mass shooting where 12 people were killed by a gunman at a local bar on Wednesday night.

    Today, fire crews tried to put out the flames in what remained of homes. Across the two counties, more than 3,000 firefighters are struggling to contain the fires in what's been described as horrific conditions of heavy winds and low humidity. Both are expected to last into next week.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    For more on what residents and fire officials have been through in recent days, I am joined on the phone by Jeremy Siegel of PBS station KQED. He's been reporting from Butte County, the area of the Camp Fire, north of Sacramento.

    Jeremy Siegel, thanks for making the time.

    You have covered wildfires in the past. What's unique about this one?

  • Jeremy Siegel:

    Well, as I was driving up, I mean, just the intensity of the smoke.

    It even was flowing into the Bay Area. It was smoky down there. And as I got closer to this region, it just became grayer and grayer, more smoke . And even as I was driving up the area, I was on what I thought was a state route, based on what I had looked at, and when I got closer to the area of Paradise, it was completely blocked off by police. And you saw flames on the side of the highway.

    And I sort of think that speaks to some of the confusion that residents have seen around here, where they think they're taking the right road out of an area, they think that they're evacuating the right way and find there are flames right by or even on the road that they were taking.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Jeremy, as you said, it's not just the intensity of the fires, it was the speed with which they spread that seemed to catch so many people by surprise. What does that mean about how people were able to evacuate in advance?

  • Jeremy Siegel:

    Well, it meant that a lot of people were scared. A lot of people were confused.

    I spoke to one woman who tried to evacuate. She was following evacuation orders as she was driving away from her home in Magalia, which is near the community of Paradise that you have been hearing about a lot of the destruction in.

    She was driving on the road away from her, and she got to a point where the road was closed. Eventually, she and a group of people were told by fire officials to essentially shelter in place in a Rite Aid inside of a storefront.

    And they were stranded there for the entire evening. She told me that, while she was in there with other people, she thought that she was going to die, that she was never going to see her family again, until early this morning. A group of sheriff's deputies from surrounding areas came and saved the group of them.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Jeremy, some folks who track these kind of wildfires, because they are nothing new, is there anything unique about what we're seeing now?

  • Jeremy Siegel:

    Well, what we're seeing right now is an increased frequency of these wildfires, especially these wildfires that are sweeping through sometimes highly densely populated areas.

    We're seeing these high-intensity, extremely fast-moving fires moving into these areas that are called wildland-urban interface, where people are living close to densely forested areas. So, that's what's unique about this fire, and it's what we're seeing more of here in Northern California.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Jeremy Siegel of PBS station KQED, thanks for your time.

  • Jeremy Siegel:

    Thanks so much for having me.

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