THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – California is on fire again, north and south, the flames are deadly and swift, fanned by ferocious Santa Ana winds and fueled by dry tinder. The fires have at least five people, immolated a mountain town and jangled the nerves of thousands of residents forced to evacuate their homes.
The fires have proved to be unstoppable, operating at flash-flood velocity. The big wildfire here in Southern California, known as the Woolsey Fire, quadrupled in size Friday, covering more than 22 square miles, with no containment. It's just jumped eight-lane Highway 101 and rambled over to the Santa Monica Mountains to posh Malibu, where it's torched homes and cars. The wildfire finally gets into its only match so far: the Pacific Ocean.
The bulletins from the northern part of the state were even worse. At least five people died in their vehicles as they tried to escape the camp fire, which devastated the mountain town of Paradise, about 90 miles north of the state capital, Sacramento.
Paradise was anything but, with block after destruction, downed power lines, charred cars in the middle of the roads, still in the middle of the road. Random buildings still stood in the town of 27,000, but for every survivor that survived, dozens that did not.
Marc Kessler, 55, science teacher at one of Paradise's middle schools, said the smoke rising from the Sierra Nevada foothills when he arrived at work Thursday.
"The sky turned black; you could not tell it what daytime, "he said. "It was raining black pieces of soot, coming down like a black snow storm and starting fires everywhere. Within minutes, the town was engulfed. "
Kessler said. Some frantic parents showed their children, he said, and bus drivers drove through.
Kessler said, "Oh, look at the moon!"
"I said, 'That's not the moon. That's the sun, he's recalled, his voice breaking. "There were times when there were flames near the vehicles. There were times when you could not see through the smoke. Some of our teachers did not think they'd survive. "
About 23.4 million Californians were under red flag warnings into Friday, and officials warned that Flames could reach the city of Chico, a college town of more than 90,000 about six miles from Paradise. People scrambled to evacuate.
The Camp Fire has been covered with 110 square miles and just 5 percent of it as of Friday, the state officials said, warning that there may be no more deaths that they can safely enter. It has been evacuated.
"We did not have much time; it came too fast, "said Cory Nichols, a barber who fled his home in Paradise. "We were going to sell the house. Do not have to now. "
California has experienced debilitating fires of unprecedented regularity in the past few years, many of them encroaching on towns and cities in areas prone to wildfires. In August, the Mendocino Complex Fire became the largest wildfire ever recorded in the state, burning more than 400,000 acres. The previous record was set to less than a year before, when the Thomas Fire burned through more than 280,000 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. In October 2017, some 21 wildfires burned nearly 95,000 acres and 7,000 buildings in Sonoma and Napa counties in the heart of California's wine country, killing 40 people.
The California fire season begins in late spring and loads through summer. But hot, dry weather has persisted this year into autumn, and the winter rains have yet to arrive. The Santa Ana winds, which are blown out of the Sierra Nevadas and heading towards the western coastline, are building into the vegetation and the soil, potentially creating explosive fire conditions.
In Thousand Oaks, 40 miles from downtown Los Angeles, have had a brutal week.
This city, already been in mourning after Wednesday night's massive shooting at a country music bar. At a vigil Thursday night, people had lit candles and pondered at unspeakable crime. Just hours later, the same area was choked in smoke and imperiled by the Woolsey Fire.
In the pre-dawn darkness, a gusty wind whipped American flags flying at half-staff in honor of the shooting victims. An orange glow could be seen throughout the city, sometimes leaping into bright flares along the ridgelines. Emergency bulletins buzzed in the middle of the night, sometimes urging evacuations.
"It's dangerous to sleep all night," said Sergio Figueroa, 34, who was dropping his wife off at a hotel where she works on Friday. Late Thursday and into the early hours Friday, he watched television, knowing his home was in the "voluntary" evacuation zone. He said he allowed himself one hour of shut-eye – but not actual sleep.
"You just close your eyes and stay alert," he said.
At 3 a.m., streets are empty with parents, children and pets evacuating as the orange glow crept closer.
"Do not wait too long. Brent Young, 52, who said he's about to take a client from Thousand Oaks to the Los Angeles International Airport through a roundabout route that would circumvent closed freeways and dangerous conditions.
The problem was figuring out which way to go. There were fires in many places. Even before the Woolsey Fire kicked up, another wildfire, the Hill Fire, threatened homes west of town. Highway 101 was closed in both directions at various times for two different fires. Fire and lacked fuel, officials said.
Longtime resident Peggy Smith, 64, was filling her gas tank at 4 a.m. Friday at a Mobile station in an area under voluntary evacuation. She said people started flocking to Thousand Oaks in the 1960s after airline pilots on the flight path into Los Angeles noticed that there was no smog here. The pilots moved to, and then police officers, and firefighters.
She was ready for the fire. She needed only 10 minutes to load her favorite family photos, important documents, clothes and food.
"My son's a fireman. I was married to a fireman. I'm not scared, "Smith said. "I have full faith in our fire departments."
They were busy. Highway 101. People had fled, power was out, and the only light came from the fires.
Wendy Eldredge, 54, drove to work as always, to Noah's Bagels, close to the freeway, aiming for a 5 a.m. arrival so doors could open at 6. When she topped a hill and looked down into Thousand Oaks, she was stunned.
"What am I driving into?" She asked herself. "How am I going to get out?"
She drove in to work and opened up, the only employee in just about the only place for miles open for business. "I did not want to let the people down," she said.
Dawn arrived with a pall of smoke blotting out the sun.
"This is crazy," said Paige Gordon, a real estate agent who was checking on a friend's multimillion-dollar house at Westlake Village as flames devoured the parched brush. "We have all aspects of Ventura County on fire."
As he turns on sprinklers in his friend's backyard, he says: "There's the fire right there!"
Smoke loosely over Thousand Oaks like a thunderhead, the black cloud slowly advancing towards the sea as it crossed hills covered in blackened stubble.
In Malibu, film and television producer Ben Rosenblatt, 35, took one look at the approaching fire and knew he had to get out almost. He just had enough time to walk the dog first. There are many ways in and out of Malibu, with the roads that wind up through the canyons impassable because of fire. That left the Pacific Coast Highway, where traffic moved at a crawl. The drive to Santa Monica should have taken him 35 minutes, but the navigation app on his phone said it would be 2 hours 35 minutes.
"It's like a slow-motion race with massive fire clouds behind you and bumper-to-bumper traffic in front," Rosenblatt said. Think of any disaster movie you've got
Seen so slowly. "
Back in Thousand Oaks, the smoke would recede and then billow up again as a spot fire flared anew. At a teen center, set up as an evacuation site for those fleeing the fires, people became nervous when they saw flames on a nearby hillside.
In the parking lot, people slept in their cars beside their cats and dogs, their belongings packed in the back.
Mary Leighton, 57, of West Lake, had just gone to bed on the news that they needed to evacuate.
"You think, 'What do you take?'" She said. "My mind went blank."
Five minutes later, carrying her husband's ashes and her cat, Pumpkin, she and her family were gone. They slept in a shelter overnight and woke. Leighton did not know whether home survived.
She then recalled the mass shooting at the borderline: "I just do not understand why this city has been hit so hard."
She and her family did not get shelter until 4 a.m., she said. Leighton slept until 9 a.m. and woke to figure out a plan for what comes next. She has been sitting in a white park in the morning parking lot, still wearing her pajamas.
"I can not find any information. I do not know what's going on, "she said. "I have nothing; I know nothing. "
Williams, a freelance journalist based in California, reported from Paradise, Calif., Bever reported from Washington. Katie Zezima in Thousand Oaks and freelance journalist Noah Smith of Santa Monica contributed to this report.