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At Least 9 Dead In Butte County Fire; 6,500 Homes Lost, 90,000 Acres Burned

CHICO (CBS SF) -- At least nine people are known dead in a massive wildfire in Butte County that reached 90,000 acres Friday, leaving behind catastrophic damage to communities with thousands of homes and buildings destroyed in what quickly grew into the state's most destructive fire in at least a century.

UPDATE: PG&E Reports Power Line Problem Minutes Before Massive Butte County Fire Erupted

The Camp Fire near Chico was just five percent contained as of Friday at 6 p.m. and has destroyed at least 6,713 structures; of those 6,453 are homes, according to a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).

The town of Paradise, where all 27,000 residents were ordered to evacuate Thursday, appears to have taken the brunt of the fire damage with entire neighborhoods leveled.

Butte County Sheriff Korey Honea said there were four more fatalities in addition to five dead reported earlier in the day. Honea said four of the earlier victims were found in dead in vehicles torched by flames while a fifth was found dead outside of a vehicle. Another victim was found inside a residence in Paradise and three more found outside of residences, Honea said. None of the victims have been identified yet.

"I certainly understand there are people in our community who are aching to know what has come of their friends and family members," said Honea. "This can be a long process in terms of identifying people and making notifications to the next of kin."

A total of 52,000 people have been evacuated from the wildfire area, according to Cal Fire. At least firefighters have been injured, said Cal Fire.


Dozens of people are missing in the wildfire area and social media has been inundated with desperate pleas from people looking for their missing loved ones. At a Friday afternoon press conference, Cal Fire said at least 6,713 buildings have been destroyed in the wildfire - most of them homes - with Paradise among the most impacted.

President Donald Trump Friday issued an emergency declaration providing aid to help state and local firefighters fighting the Camp Fire, as well as the wildfires in Ventura and Los Angeles counties. The money will help pay for firefighting aircraft along with shelter, supplies and transportation for the tens of thousands of evacuated residents.

"The Camp Fire has been an extremely challenging fire and has resulted in significant and catastrophic loss for that community, the community of Paradise specifically," said Director of the Governor's Office of Emergency Services Mark Ghilarducci at a Friday morning press conference.  "We know that there have been injuries and we know that there has been loss of life and we are still accounting for that."

The University of California, Davis Medical Center said it was treating seven burn victims from the fire and was ready to help other hospitals if needed.

Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean said the blaze had roared into some neighborhoods in Chico early Friday, but firefighters were able to halt its advance.

At least 400 welfare checks had been requested by worried families searching for loved ones who have not been heard from since the firestorm roared through Paradise on Thursday.

Meanwhile, crews from across Northern California raced to battle the firestorm including those from San Francisco, Santa Rosa, Alameda, Oakland and others from the Bay Area cities.

By Friday evening, more than 3,200 firefighters were on the lines.

The blaze -- fueled by bone-dry humidity and winds topping 50 mph -- exploded from nearly 1,000 acres to over 10,000 acres in a matter of a few hours Thursday and completely overwhelmed the town of Paradise.

Homes burst into flames, fast-food restaurants, markets, businesses and gas stations were reduced to ash and the community's hospital was turned into rubble.

Camp Fire Roars Through Paradise in Butte County
Flames consume a car dealership as the Camp Fire tears through Paradise, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

On Friday, emotional evacuees talk about their harrowing escapes. Margaret Aurandt, who doesn't own a car, said she walked along a road as the flames down on her neighborhood hoping someone would stop and rescue her.

"I walked out to Clark Road and a girl picked me up," she said as she stood near tears in a Chico church parking lot. "It took us four hours to get down here."

Duane Damico could barely held back his tears.

"I saw everything burn, just tornadoes like you wouldn't believe," he said. "The town hall was burning when I left. I just had to leave. I was tired of cutting down fences for people ... Jesus Christ, I hope not too many people die in this fire."

A 13-year-old had an even more devastating remembrance -- "I told my teacher, I think someone just died."

Other residents described fleeing their homes and then getting stuck on gridlocked roads as flames approached, sparking explosions and toppling utility poles.

"Things started exploding," said resident Gina Oviedo. "People started getting out of their vehicles and running."

On social media, families desperately issued pleas for any news of loved one. Many of the pleas were featured on the Twitter page of actor James Woods. Officials said at least 400 requests have come in for welfare checks, but there was little left of Paradise to search.

Bay Area resident Lorrie Ballard was searching for her parents and posted a plea on Woods' Twitter account.

"HELP track down parents!!! They should've evacuated from Racine Cir MagaliaCalFire map. Last talked at 10:00am & they didn't think they needed to evacuate. Phones go strait to vm. We told them to come to Bay Area and let us know the second they evacuate."

By early Friday, the rapidly moving fire had the fringe neighborhoods of Chico -- Butte County's largest community with a population of 90,000 -- in its cross hairs. Evacuations orders had been issued for the eastern neighborhoods at 12:20 a.m.

Classes at Chico State University were cancelled on Friday while hundreds of students headed to the safety of their family homes elsewhere in California.

The fire was reported shortly after daybreak Thursday in a rural area. By nightfall, it had consumed more than 28 square miles, Cal Fire Capt. Scott McLean said.

The cause of the fire was not immediately known.

Across the Bay Area, residents took precaution as the fire's massive smoke plume enveloped the region with a layer of unhealthy air. Many residents awoke Friday with their homes filled with the smell of burning wood and air quality officials had issued a warning.

According to the federal EPA air quality site, Alameda had an unhealthy air index of 165 and a particle pollution measure of PM2.5

To put that in perspective, Beijing China has long been known as a city covered by a layer of unhealthy air. On Friday, the particle pollution measure in Beijing was also PM2.5.

Oakland resident Danny Wertheimer wore a surgical mask as he went for his Thursday evening walk in Oakland.

"I looked out my window and I saw the smoke filter in," he said. "It looked bad. It's the worse I've seen this year. It just came in so quickly."

Joseph Hall said the smoke has left him gasping for air at times.

"There is ash in my mouth," he said. "My mouth and my nose are dry as a bone."

Officials for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District issued a smoke advisory Friday, warning that "heavy smoke from the fire is causing elevated levels of particulate pollution in the region and is especially impacting the North Bay and East Bay."

"Stay inside with windows and doors until the smoke levels subside," the agency warned.

© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report

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