National News

From North to South, California Does Battle With Furious Wildfires

Posted November 9, 2018 8:25 p.m. EST
Updated November 9, 2018 8:34 p.m. EST

As the Woolsey Fire rages nearby, a volunteer with the city's Disaster Assistance Response Team brings an evacuee to an emergency shelter in Thousand Oaks, Calif., on Friday, Nov. 9, 2018. As wildfires swept over a large swath of California on Friday, the authorities said at least five people had been killed in a blaze that decimated a retirement community in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. (Jenna Schoenefeld/The New York Times)

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — Even in a state hardened to the ravages of wildfires, the infernos that raged at both ends of California on Friday were overpowering. Malibu mansions burned. Six people died in a retirement community called Paradise. And in the neighborhood in Thousand Oaks where a gunman had killed 12 people in a crowded bar earlier in the week, survivors now fled the flames.

The fire-prone state was battling three major fires, one in the northern Sierra and two west of Los Angeles. In the northern town of Paradise, the ruins of houses and businesses smoldered throughout the day, while in Southern California, tens of thousands of residents fled their homes and jammed onto highways. Exotic lemurs and parrots were packed up and carried away to safety as fires ringed the Los Angeles Zoo in Griffith Park.

“It’s phenomenal how fast the fire spread,” said Scott McLean, deputy chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said of the fire in Paradise, where he had rescued a lone, older woman rolling down a road in her wheelchair Thursday. As firefighters struggled to contain the flames, and as a thick blanket of smoke turned day into night, McLean said he feared the death toll would rise higher. Abandoned cars on a central street were evidence that many had fled the ferociously fast fire on foot.

It was too early to know how many of them made it out of Paradise alive.

In Thousand Oaks, there was grief compounded by grief. Just as residents were coming to terms with a shooting at a country music bar, the wind-driven fires swept thousands of residents from their homes.

Dylan McNey, a 22-year-old carpenter, was a triple survivor. McNey has lived through two mass shootings just a year apart: first, at the county music festival in Las Vegas, then once again at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks this week. McNey used to work as a security guard at the Borderline, and said he is there at least a couple of times a week.

Although his friends had all survived the Las Vegas shooting, a woman he helped to escape eventually died of her wounds, he said. Six of his friends were killed at the Borderline shooting.

On Thursday afternoon, he gathered at his house with several friends so they could be together in their grief. When they received an evacuation order, his mother and sister left. But McNey decided to stay put, along with his father, a former firefighter, and watched the fire from their backyard.

“We had a good view from where it was starting,” he said.

Bill Vano, a Thousand Oaks resident who was evacuated as the fire approached, said he felt whipsawed.

“It’s a lot real fast — I don’t know how to process it,” Vano said. “I’m confused, walking around in a fog right now.”

In Paradise, emergency crews looked for the missing, an endeavor complicated by the fire’s continued strength, said Megan McMann, a coordinator with the Butte County Sheriff’s Office. “There are a lot of areas where the fire is active that we can’t access,” McMann said.

The bodies of five people were found “in vehicles that were overcome” by the flames, Sheriff Kory L. Honea of Butte County said, adding that they had been so badly burned, they could not immediately be identified. A sixth body was found Friday, but officials said the circumstances of that death were still unclear.

Brian Robertson, who was sleeping in a trailer near the town of Magalia, testified to the speed of the fire. He credited his pit bull, BB, for saving him.

“She woke me up and the whole world was on fire around us,” said Robertson, who believes his trailer was destroyed. Wildfires like these have long been a threat in California, but over the last several years they have had devastating impacts never before seen in the state. Firefighters constantly repeat that the state has reached a “new normal” of nearly year-round fires.

Over the summer, a significant section of Northern California was burned by the largest fire on record, the Mendocino Complex Fire. And last year the state’s most destructive fire on record, the Tubbs Fire, tore through Sonoma and Napa counties, killing 22 people and destroying thousands of homes.

California’s governor-elect, Gavin Newsom, declared a state of emergency Friday in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. On Thursday, he declared an emergency in northern Butte County and asked President Donald Trump for federal assistance.

Many fires in recent years have been caused by downed power lines; officials say they are still investigating the causes of the current ones.

More than 1.4 million acres have burned so far this year in the state, said McLean, the Cal Fire deputy chief, roughly equal to the totals from the very destructive year of 2017.

And while the strong winds known as Santa Ana contributed to the bigger fires, the link with climate change is inextricable, said Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

“It’s once again in California the perfect recipe for fire,” Williams said. “You get a big Santa Ana wind event in the fall before the first winter rain comes. You’ve got a lot of people who are always creating potential fires by lighting fires either on purpose or on accident.

“And then behind the scenes of all of this, you’ve got temperatures that are about 2 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit warmer now than they would’ve been without global warming.”

Firefighters, once again, were being pushed to the limits. In Chico, west of Paradise, they were working to shift the fire away from homes and subdivisions Friday. The blaze, called the Camp Fire, has burned more than 70,000 acres and is only 5 percent controlled, authorities said.

In Southern California, authorities ordered the complete evacuation of Malibu, the affluent community that is home to many Hollywood celebrities, as the fire raced through the hills and canyons above the Pacific Ocean. No part of the fire was under control, according to the Ventura County Fire Department.

The National Park Service said Friday that Western Ranch, a movie set built by Paramount Pictures in Agoura, in the hills outside Los Angeles, had burned down.

Thick columns of smoke rose into the azure Southern California skies as the Woolsey Fire burned 14,000 acres west of Los Angeles. Residents in more than 75,000 homes in Ventura and Los Angeles counties were told to evacuate.

The fire shut down the 101 freeway, a major transportation artery connecting Los Angeles with points north.

A separate, smaller fire in Griffith Park, near Burbank and Glendale, and not far from downtown Los Angeles, forced the temporary evacuation of some animals from the Los Angeles Zoo on the edge of the park. And in Thousand Oaks, the road leading to the Borderline bar remained closed to the public Friday afternoon. Many of the officers keeping guard wore masks over their mouths to keep from inhaling the thick smoke hanging in the air. Down the street from the bar, some people packed luggage into cars in anticipation of a potential evacuation order later in the day.

For hours after the shooting, people crowded into the Thousand Oaks Teen Center, anxious to find out if their loved ones had survived. It was well past lunchtime before it began to empty out. But by midnight, it was crowded again — this time as a fire evacuation center. On Friday afternoon, officials watched as a fire moved through a nearby hillside.

Lonnie Schrader, a pastor in Thousand Oaks, said he and his family were hosting acquaintances who were evacuated from their homes Friday. He expressed shock that the community had to pivot so quickly from Wednesday night’s shooting to fire preparation.

“Because it’s an emergency, you have to suck it up and do what you can, and you put your emotions on a shelf a little bit to process later,” he said. “I don’t know what in the world is going on.”