California wildfire explodes, burning across 25 miles in day

California wildfire explodes, burning across 25 miles in day
This GOES-16 GeoColor satellite image taken at 20:00 UTC (4 p.m. EDT) and provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), shows brown smoke from wildfires blowing westward in the atmosphere from California's Sierra Nevada to the Coast Ranges and from Oregon, top, on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. (NOAA via AP)

A Northern California wildfire burning for more than three weeks roared to life after being stoked by high winds, spreading at a ferocious rate across an estimated 25 miles (40 kilometers) of mountainous terrain and parched foothills and destroying an untold number of homes.

As thick smoke choked the air Wednesday and cast an eerie orange hue across much of the region, thousands of people in communities near Oroville were ordered to evacuate. The fire even threatened the town of Paradise that was devastated just two years ago by the deadliest blaze in state history, causing a panic that led to a traffic jam as residents tried to escape.

Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the fire had conservatively burned about 400 square miles (1,036 square kilometers) in 24 hours.

"The unbelievable rates of spread now being observed on these fires—it is historically unprecedented," Swain tweeted.

The North Complex fire was one of more than two dozen in the state, including three of five largest ever as wildfires burned across parts of the West amid gusty, dry conditions. Forecasters said some weather relief was in sight that could help firefighters overwhelmed by the blazes.

In Washington, more acres burned in a single day than firefighters usually see all year. Fires also forced people to flee homes in Oregon and Idaho. A blast of polar air helped slow wildfires in Colorado and Montana.

California wildfire explodes, burning across 25 miles in day
In this image taken with a slow shutter speed, embers light up a hillside behind the Bidwell Bar Bridge as the Bear Fire burns in Oroville, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. The blaze, part of the lightning-sparked North Complex, expanded at a critical rate of spread as winds buffeted the region. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Since the middle of August, fires in California have killed eight people, destroyed more than 3,600 structures, burned old growth redwoods, charred chaparral and forced evacuations in communities near the coast, in wine country and along the Sierra Nevada.

The U.S. Forest Service, which had taken the unprecedented measure of closing eight national forests in Southern California earlier in the week, ordered all 18 of its forests in the state closed Wednesday for public safety.

The fire raging outside Oroville, 125 miles (200 kilometers) northeast of San Francisco, was burning in the Plumas National Forest after a series of wildfires sparked Aug. 17 by lightning had merged.

The fire jumped the middle fork of the Feather River on Tuesday and, driven by 45 mph (72 km/h) winds, leapt into a canopy of pines and burned all the way to Lake Oroville—about 25 miles (40 kilometers)—said Jake Cagle, one of the fire chiefs involved.

California wildfire explodes, burning across 25 miles in day
Patrick Kenefick, left, and Dana Williams, both of Mill Valley, Calif., record the darkened Golden Gate Bridge covered with smoke from wildfires Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020, from a pier at Fort Baker near Sausalito, Calif. The photo was taken at 9:47 a.m. in the morning. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

The fire had been 62 square miles (160 square kilometers) and 50% contained before it grew more than sixfold.

Firefighters were focused on saving lives and homes instead of trying to halt the fire's advance, Cagle said.

The fire tore into several hamlets along the river and near Lake Oroville, leveling countless homes and other buildings, said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

"We know that the fire was burning incredibly rapidly into Berry Creek and did do a lot of destruction," Berlant said.

A massive cloud of smoke covered much of California, darkening morning skies and later casting a sunsetlike glow over the northern part of the state.

In Paradise, where 85 people lost their lives and nearly 19,000 buildings were destroyed, the sky turned from black to cherry red and ash carried on strong winds rained down in a scene reminiscent from the fateful morning of Nov. 8, 2018, former Mayor Steve "Woody" Culleton said.

California wildfire explodes, burning across 25 miles in day
Flames lick above vehicles on Highway 162 as the Bear Fire burns in Oroville, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. The blaze, part of the lightning-sparked North Complex, expanded at a critical rate of spread as winds buffeted the region. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

"It was extremely frightening and ugly," Culleton said. "Everybody has PTSD and what not, so it triggered everybody and caused terror and panic."

A power shutoff to prevent electric lines from sparking wildfires—the cause of the Paradise fire—prevented people from getting up-to-date information by internet, TV or their home phones, Culleton said. Many of the residents decided to leave and created a traffic jam leading out of town, another scary reminder of the bottleneck where several residents died two years ago.

In Southern California, fires burned in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Diego counties. People in foothill communities east of Los Angeles were warned to be ready to flee, but the region's notorious Santa Ana winds were weaker than predicted.

"We're encouraged that the wind activity appears to be dying down," Gov. Gavin Newsom said. "The rest of the week looks a little more favorable."

California wildfire explodes, burning across 25 miles in day
A man walks his dog along Bridgeway Avenue as smoke from wildfires darken the morning Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020, in Sausalito, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Three firefighters injured along the Central Coast on Tuesday when they were overrun trying to protect a mountaintop fire station above Big Sur were expected to make full recoveries and could be discharged by the end of the week, Los Padres National Forest spokesman Andrew Madsen said.

The injured firefighters and 11 others had to deploy emergency fire shelters—a last ditch safety measure—when winds unexpectedly shifted, Madsen said.

"It's a really harrowing experience for those who go through a close encounter like that and we're very grateful that the injuries are such that all three who were hospitalized are going to recover and return to work," he said.

That fire, which had doubled overnight Tuesday and burned terrain that hadn't seen fire in 40 years, destroyed an office, two engines, barracks and all the firefighters' personal belongings inside.

  • California wildfire explodes, burning across 25 miles in day
    Flames shoot from a home as the Bear Fire burns through the Berry Creek area of Butte County, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. The blaze, part of the lightning-sparked North Complex, expanded at a critical rate of spread as winds buffeted the region. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
  • California wildfire explodes, burning across 25 miles in day
    Firefighters watch the Bear Fire approach in Oroville, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. The blaze, part of the lightning-sparked North Complex, expanded at a critical rate of spread as winds buffeted the region. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
  • California wildfire explodes, burning across 25 miles in day
    A scorched car rests in a clearing following the Bear Fire in Butte County, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. The blaze, part of the lightning-sparked North Complex, expanded at a critical rate of spread as winds buffeted the region. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
  • California wildfire explodes, burning across 25 miles in day
    Shawn Thornton hugs his wife, Shannon Thornton, next to the rubble of their burned home Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020, in Malden, Washington the day after a fast-moving wildfire swept through the tiny town west of Rosalia. Shawn and Shannon weren't home at the time, but their son Cody was and managed to get their dog and a few belongings before leaving just minutes before the flames swept through. (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review via AP)
  • California wildfire explodes, burning across 25 miles in day
    Catherine Shields, of Silverton, Ore., leads her horse Takoda under smoky skies, on the Oregon State Fairgrounds, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020, in Salem, Ore. Shields evacuated the horse and other animals from her home on Tuesday, as a wildfire threatened. Hundreds of horses have been brought to the fairgrounds in Salem by people fleeing the fires, along with llamas, goats and other animals. The Red Cross is helping people at the fairgrounds, which has been turned into an evacuation center. (AP Photo/Andrew Selsky)
  • California wildfire explodes, burning across 25 miles in day
    A plume rises from the Bear Fire as it burns along Lake Oroville on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020, in Butte County, Calif. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
  • California wildfire explodes, burning across 25 miles in day
    Embers fly across a roadway as the Bear Fire burns in Oroville, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. The blaze, part of the lightning-sparked North Complex, expanded at a critical rate of spread as winds buffeted the region. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
  • California wildfire explodes, burning across 25 miles in day
    Under darkened skies from wildfire smoke, a waiter carries a tray of Irish Coffee to people having lunch at the Buena Vista Cafe Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020, in San Francisco. People from San Francisco to Seattle woke Wednesday to hazy clouds of smoke lingering in the air, darkening the sky to an eerie orange glow that kept street lights illuminated into midday, all thanks to dozens of wildfires throughout the West. The picture was taken in the middle of the day at 12:39 p.m. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
  • California wildfire explodes, burning across 25 miles in day
    Under darkened skies from wildfire smoke, a man crosses Hyde Street with Alcatraz Island and Fisherman's Wharf in the background Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020, in San Francisco. People from San Francisco to Seattle woke Wednesday to hazy clouds of smoke lingering in the air, darkening the sky to an eerie orange glow that kept street lights illuminated into midday, all thanks to dozens of wildfires throughout the West. The picture was taken in the middle of the day at 12:29 p.m. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
  • California wildfire explodes, burning across 25 miles in day
    A steady stream of vehicles heads west on a road east of Springfield, Ore., as residents evacuate the area ahead of a fast-moving wildfire Tuesday Sept. 8, 2020. (Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard via AP)
  • California wildfire explodes, burning across 25 miles in day
    A scorched car rests in a clearing following the Bear Fire in Butte County, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. The blaze, part of the lightning-sparked North Complex, expanded at a critical rate of spread as winds buffeted the region. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

California has set a record with nearly 2.5 million acres (1 million hectares) burned already this year, and historically the worst of the wildfire season doesn't begin until fall.

Pacific Gas & Electric was deploying more than 3,000 employees Wednesday to inspect power lines before restoring energy to about 167,000 customers whose electricity was turned off to prevent fires from being started by wind-damaged wires. Some aerial inspections were paused because of smoke limiting visibility, said spokesman Jeff Smith.

Only a very small number of customers had power turned off in Southern California.


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