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PARADISE, Calif., Nov 9 (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, authorities said on Friday, as they expressed fears more bodies would be discovered.
Nearly 500 miles (800 km) to the south, a blaze forced the evacuation of the upscale oceanside city of Malibu 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 leveling parts of Paradise, with a population of 26,000 people, and was only 5 percent contained by Friday.
In addition to the five people found dead in their vehicles, many were forced to ditch their cars and run for their lives down the sole road through the mountain town. In the aftermath, a school bus was among several abandoned vehicles left blackened by flames on one road.
About 2,000 structures were destroyed in the area, officials said.
The death toll is expected to climb, said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) spokesman Scott McLean, 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), McLean said, 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 about 30 miles (48 km) west of downtown Los Angeles.
Malibu and nearby Calabasas are home to hundreds of celebrities and entertainment executives attracted by its ocean views, rolling hills and large, secluded estates.
Flames completely engulfed large homes in at least one affluent section of Malibu. Police officers walked past an apartment building fronted by burning palm trees, as they combed through neighborhoods urging people to leave.
In a rush to find refuge from the flames, a number of horses were taken to a beach and tied to lifeguard stations, said Pono Barnes, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County lifeguards division.
“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 in Malibu or Calabasas, but local television stations showed images of a number of homes that had been destroyed.
The evacuation created a hair-raising traffic jam, with cars brought to a standstill on the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu.
‘WE ARE STILL REELING’
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.
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.
The Hill Fire in Ventura County’s Santa Rosa Valley has charred about 6,000 acres (2,428 hectares), according to Cal Fire.
In Los Angeles, another, smaller 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. (Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall, Dan Whitcomb and Gina Cherelus; editing by Bill Tarrant, Sandra Maler and Cynthia Osterman)