The wildfires ripping through California — both in the south and the north — have proved to be some of the deadliest and most destructive in state history. The Woolsey Fire, in Los Angeles, has killed at least 2 people; the Camp Fire, which is ravaging the Sierra Nevada foothills north of Sacramento, has killed at least 29.
For the people of the town of Paradise, the Camp Fire has destroyed nearly 7,000 structures — virtually the entire community.
“This event was the worst-case scenario,” Butte County Sheriff Kory L. Honea said. “It’s the event that we have feared for a long time.”
Below, hear stories from some of the people who have experienced the devastation firsthand.
Surgical nurse Nichole Jolly, who turned 34 on Friday, spent her birthday helping evacuate the patients from Paradise’s only hospital. She didn’t know whether her home survived. After the hospital had been cleared, she tried to leave the area but was trapped by smoke and flames. Her car caught fire. A call from her husband, in a place where cellphone service is notoriously spotty, came through, and “he told me to get out and run.”
“I told him I wasn’t sure I was going to make it out,” she said.
A bulldozer operator picked her up and took her back to the Feather River Hospital, where staffers, trapped in place, started a triage area outside because “the whole place smelled like burned plastic.”
Staff members, patients and anyone who could hold a fire extinguisher watched for spot fires. She said about 10 nurses, two doctors and a respiratory therapist spent the next five or six hours treating anyone who reached the hospital.
“People were making sure no one was left behind,” she said. “Strangers helping strangers. We might be a divided country, but it didn’t matter that day. Black, white, Democrat, Republican; none of that mattered. People just helped one another, and it was amazing to see.”
Sharon Woods, who owns a winery and lives in Malibu Lake, said she was horrified by the hellscape in Southern California. Her two-story wooden house somehow was spared, with a trail of fire skirting it along the property line. The only things she lost were a couple of garbage cans. She’d won the fire lottery.
“I’m still completely dazed,” she said. “I’ve been crying for 20 hours.” She surveyed the remnants of the neighborhood with Jeremy Sugarman, 39, a landscape architect whose home also survived.
“I’m very familiar with fire. This one, however, was exceptionally scary,” Sugarman said. He recounted driving to Malibu to check on his mother’s house. “We were seeing smoke tornadoes.”
In Malibu, Pepperdine University’s 3,600 undergraduates were ordered to shelter in place as the fire approached. That decision by university officials proved controversial, especially with parents, after the flames reached hillsides near campus. Overnight, debate had raged about whether the students were in the safest possible spot — or trapped and in danger.
It seems counterintuitive, said Connie Horton, vice president for student affairs, but the Los Angeles County Fire Department supports the shelter-in-place plan as the safest course. “We have lived it a number of times over the years, practiced it, rehearsed it, trained on it,” she said.
The flames had been extinguished near campus by early Saturday morning.
Achenbach reported from Thousand Oaks, Calif. Williams in Paradise, Calif., Tony Biasotti, Katie Mettler and Katie Zezima in Thousand Oaks, and Jason Samenow in Washington contributed to this report.