By Stephen Lam
PARADISE, Calif. (Reuters) – A rapidly moving wildfire in Northern California killed five people when flames engulfed their vehicles as they attempted to flee the mountain town of Paradise in one of three infernos raging across the state, authorities said on Friday.
Nearly 500 miles (800 km) to the south, a blaze forced the evacuation of the upscale oceanside city of Malibu, home to many celebrities, and threatened the beleaguered town of Thousand Oaks, where a gunman killed 12 people this week in a shooting rampage in a bar and dance hall.
Since it broke out on Thursday, the so-called Camp Fire has more than tripled in size to 70,000 acres (2,838 hectares) after engulfing Paradise, a town of nearly 30,000 people, and was only 5-percent contained by Friday.
“The town is devastated, everything is destroyed,” said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) spokesman Scott Mclean, referring to Paradise, which has a population of 26,000 including many retirees.
In addition to the five people found dead in their vehicles, many were forced to abandon their cars and run for their lives down the sole road through the mountain town. About 2,000 structures were destroyed in the area, officials said.
The death toll is expected to climb above five, Mclean said, because flames have blocked search and rescue crews from looking for victims in destroyed homes.
“The only reason they found the five is because they were still on the road,” Mclean said.
The fires in California have been driven by hot winds from the east reaching speeds of up to 40 miles per hour (64 kph), forcing firefighters to scramble to keep up with the fast-moving flames.
In Southern California, the 14,000-acre (5,666-hectare) Woolsey Fire led authorities on Friday morning to expand mandatory evacuation orders to the entire city of Malibu.
Flames completely engulfed large homes in at least one affluent neighborhood.
“Fire is now burning out of control and heading into populated areas of Malibu,” the city said in a statement online. “All residents must evacuate immediately.”
In all, the Woolsey Fire led authorities to issue evacuation orders for 75,000 homes in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.
It was not immediately clear how many homes had been destroyed.
Video shot from a news helicopter showed cars at a standstill on the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, about 30 miles (48 km) west of downtown Los Angeles. An unspecified number of homes were destroyed there, according to local media.
MOVIE SET TOWN ABLAZE
The Woolsey Fire broke out on Thursday and quickly jumped the 101 Freeway. On Friday, it climbed across the Santa Monica Mountains toward Malibu.
It also threatened parts of nearby Thousand Oaks in Ventura County northwest of Los Angeles, the site of the shooting massacre earlier this week, stunning a community with a reputation for safety.
Linda Parks, a Ventura County supervisor, whose district covers Thousand Oaks, lamented the timing of the wildfire. “We are still reeling, but we are also very resilient,” she said.
On its path of destruction, the fire destroyed a Western-themed movie and television set in Agoura, north of Malibu, a unit of the National Park Service said on Twitter.
Western Town was created in the 1950s for television shows such as “The Cisco Kid,” and more recently was used for television shows such as “Westworld” and “Weeds,” and was a draw for visitors.
California Acting Governor Gavin Newsom on Friday declared a state of emergency for areas affected by the Woolsey and Hill fires in Ventura and Los Angeles counties.
In Los Angeles, another fire in Griffith Park forced the Los Angeles Zoo to evacuate a number of show birds and some small primates on Friday as flames came within less than 2 miles (3 km) of the facility, zoo officials said in a statement.
“Animals and employees are safe,” the statement said.
(Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall and Brendan O’Brien; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Sandra Maler)