A growing trio of wildfires incinerated large swaths of Northern and Southern California over the past three days, killing 11 people.

They have displaced hundreds of thousands and turned a retirement community called Paradise into hectares of ash and charred foundations.

The massive Camp Fire north of Sacramento had destroyed some 6700 structures, becoming the most destructive inferno in a state with a long and calamitous history of fires.

Since Friday, more than 200,000 Californians have been displaced - greater than the population of the city of Orlando, Florida.

Advertisement

In addition to the dead, dozens have been reported missing. Authorities warned that the property losses would also be staggering. A pair of fires near Los Angeles threatened Malibu mansions and destroyed Paramount Ranch, the filming location of the HBO series Westworld.

Before officials announced the latest grim statistics and rising death toll, US President Donald Trump fanned an ongoing dispute with California leaders, blaming mismanagement of state resources for the destruction and death.

"There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor," Trump tweeted. "Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!"

California officials have countered Trump's claims in the past, saying that ever-intense fires are the result of global warming, which dries up vegetation and turns fire-prone areas of the state into a tinderbox.

Today was the first time Trump has spoken publicly about the California blazes.

In Northern California's Butte County, about 145km north of state capital Sacramento, residents described fleeing a catastrophic fire. The inferno grew with incredible speed, claimed nine lives and turned a sunny day into an end-of-days scene of flames, smoke, sparks and wide destruction.

Krystin Harvey, left, comforts her daughter Araya Cipollini at the remains of their home burned in the Camp Fire, in Paradise, California.
Krystin Harvey, left, comforts her daughter Araya Cipollini at the remains of their home burned in the Camp Fire, in Paradise, California.

Named after nearby Camp Creek, the blaze is not yet done. It had burned at least 36,420ha and was only 20 per cent contained, causing officials to declare a state of emergency for a fire likely to worsen over the weekend.

Officials warned that "red flag" conditions would persist on and off until Tuesday, hot, dry and windy weather that makes the land ripe for a fire's spread.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea told reporters at a news conference yesterday that officials had found nine people who had been killed by the fire: Four were found dead in their cars in Paradise, down from the five officials had spoken about earlier; three outside of houses; and two others, one inside a home, and another near a car.

The fire had injured an undisclosed number of residents as well as three firefighters. And Honea's deputies were still looking into some 35 reports of missing people.

"This event was the worst-case scenario," Honea said. "It's the event that we have feared for a long time."

Firefighter Eric Santana looks for hot spots after a wildfire swept through Malibu.
Firefighter Eric Santana looks for hot spots after a wildfire swept through Malibu.

Trump has loudly and consistently blamed intensifying wildfires on poor resource management by California officials. In August, with fires growing to historic sizes in California, Trump tweeted that the state is "foolishly" diverting "vast amounts of water from the North," blaming bad environmental laws for the summer's deadly fires.

Twice in October, Trump made similar threats because of what he alleged was poor forest management policy.

Universally, California officials' response has been that the real culprit behind intensifying wildfires is climate change.

A hotter-than average summer and dry winter have led to tinder-dry vegetation, in areas scorched by the Carr fire.

In Southern California's Ventura County, still reeling from a mass shooting that left 12 people dead, more wildfires had broken out, forcing 100,000 people in Thousand Oaks, Malibu and other areas to flee their homes. The Woolsey Fire had burned some 14,165ha, officials said, while the nearby Hill Fire had burned through 2430ha.

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Chief John Benedict told AP that two people have been found dead in the fire zone of a Southern California blaze.

The deaths are the first from the pair of wildfires burning to the north and west of downtown Los Angeles.

But of all the areas struck by fires in the state so far, Paradise had fared the worst. Its main commercial street transformed into a smoking runway of destruction.

Officials said that 6453 homes and 260 businesses had been destroyed, making the fire the most destructive in California's history.

The previous record holder, the Tubbs Fire in the state's wine country, was just one year ago.


Marc Kessler, 55, a science teacher at a public middle school in Paradise, said the sky turned black soon after he arrived at work.

"It was raining black pieces of soot, coming down like a black snowstorm and starting fires everywhere. Within minutes, the town was engulfed."

Teachers were told by emergency workers to forgo seat-belt laws as they piled 200 or so students into their personal vehicles.

Bus drivers drove through flames to help out, he said. One of his students pointed out what they thought was the moon in the darkened sky.

"I said, 'That's not the moon. That's the sun,' " he recalled, his voice cracking.

"There were times when you couldn't see though the smoke."


The Mayor of Paradise, Jody Jones, said most of the buildings in her town of 26,000 had been destroyed.

"There are very few homes still standing and we've been in multiple different neighbourhoods this afternoon," Jones told CNN. "There's really not much left."

Paradise resident Brynn Chatfield posted a terrifying video as she and her family escaped the fire, flames a few feet from their vehicle and embers shooting across their path.

"Heavenly father, please help us," she prayed in the video. "Please help us to be safe."

The video concluded as the vehicle emerged from the flames into a normal day. Chatfield later posted the video, which has since been seen nearly 2 million times.

"My hometown of Paradise is on fire," she wrote. "My family is evacuated and safe. Not all my friends are safe."

A firefighter walks by the a burning home in Malibu, California, yesterday.
A firefighter walks by the a burning home in Malibu, California, yesterday.

Stars join thousands waiting to learn wildfire's damage toll


Rich or not, famous or not, there was no reprieve from the California wildfires sweeping through towns as different as the star-filled oceanside enclave of Malibu and the modest communities nearby and in the state's north.

Lady Gaga, Martin Sheen and Kim Kardashian West were among the celebrities who joined thousands of others in evacuating from the affluent coastal city that is as well-known as its residents. The stars went online to share their own distress and dismay for others as the fate of many properties remained unknown.

"I am thinking so deeply for everyone who is suffering today from these abominable fires & grieving the loss of their homes or loved ones," Lady Gaga tweeted. "I'm sitting here with many of you wondering if my home will burst into flames. All we can do is pray together & for each other. God Bless You."


There were shout-outs as well to the firefighters struggling to contain the fires in what were described as especially difficult conditions.

"These guys are heroes," filmmaker Guillermo del Toro posted on Twitter. His so-called "Bleak House," which contains his collection of items too scary to be kept in the family home, was endangered.

Shannen Doherty, who'd been out of town when the fire broke out, said online that friends staying at her Malibu house evacuated safely with her dogs.

It's likely her house burned, she said, but she expressed gratitude to firefighters "putting their lives on the line for all of us" and sympathy for others affected by the fire.

Sheen said the fire was the worst he has ever seen. He said he expects his house was destroyed.

Beverly Hills, 90210 star Doherty said her "heart is ripped apart" by the loss of a Malibu home where she and husband Kurt Iswarienko were married in 2011, posting on Instagram a wedding-day photo of the smiling couple on a tree-lined path at the property apparently owned by a friend.


She had previously found refuge in the house when her father died in 2010, Doherty wrote.

"It's the place I felt my dad with me. It's gone. Fire has taken it away. I'm devastated by all that's happening," she said.

Alyssa Milano posted that she was waiting to hear of her home's fate.

"There are no words for this kind of devastation. I'm so sorry and my heart is with each of those who are impacted by this awful disaster," she tweeted.

Kardashian West posted video on Instagram of an area on fire with a message "Pray for Calabasas." She said she landed back home, spent one hour packing and evacuated shortly afterward.

In addition to homes destroyed, Paramount Ranch's "Western Town," a landmark film location dating back to 1927 that included a jail, hotel and saloon, burned to the ground. The TV series Westworld is among the many productions that have filmed at the ranch in the mountains west of Los Angeles.