PARADISE, Calif. (AP) — Tens of thousands of people were ordered to evacuate a fast-moving wildfire that exploded in size Thursday, threatening several Northern California communities and forcing panicked residents to race to help neighbors who had to drive through walls of flames to escape.
It was not immediately known if there were injuries or fatalities.
As people fled in cars, some abandoned their vehicles, running from encroaching flames as they held babies in their arms and pets, said Gina Oviedo, who described a devastating scene as she evacuated the town of Paradise. Flames were engulfing homes, utility poles were crashing down and things were exploding, she said.
"It's a very dangerous and very serious situation," Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea told The Associated Press. "I'm driving through fire as we speak. We're doing everything we can to get people out of the affected areas."
He confirmed reports that evacuees had to abandon their vehicles as they fled the scene.
"We're getting them on other vehicles with room. We're working very hard to get people out. The message I want to get out is if you can evacuate, you need to evacuate," Honea said.
All of Paradise, a town of about 27,000 people 180 miles (290 kilometers) northeast of San Francisco, was ordered to evacuate, said Butte County Sheriff's spokeswoman Miranda Bowersox.
The wildfire was reported at 6:30 a.m., affecting about 30,000 people, Rick Carhart, a Cal Fire spokesman, said.
"The blaze is being driven by fairly strong winds," Carhart said. "It's really dry and we have low humidity — and unfortunately those are great conditions for a fire to spread."
A hospital and several schools were evacuated as thick grey smoke and ash filled the sky above Paradise and could be seen from miles away.
The Adventist Health Feather River Hospital in Paradise evacuated all its patients and staff, given its close proximity to the fire, and transported them safely to hospitals in neighboring towns, said Jill Kinney, an Adventist Health spokeswoman. She said she did not know the exact number of people evacuated.
Four of the hospital's employees were briefly trapped in the basement and rescued by California Highway Patrol officers, Kinney said.
Enloe Medical Center in nearby Chico received 24 patients, spokeswoman Jolene Francis said. Other patients were taken to Oroville Hospital in the city of Oroville.
Shari Bernacett said she and her husband tried to get people to leave the mobile home park they manage in Paradise and had minutes to evacuate as flames reached the east side of the town.
She and her husband "knocked on doors, yelled and screamed" to alert as many of the residents of 53 mobile homes and recreational vehicles as possible to leave, Bernacett said.
"My husband tried his best to get everybody out. The whole hill's on fire. God help us!" Bernacett said before breaking down crying.
She and her husband grabbed their dog, jumped in their pickup truck and drove through flames before getting to safety on Highway 99, she said.
Groups of fleeing residents gathered in a Kmart parking lot in Paradise, with their dogs and some with horses, waiting to be evacuated, said Shelley Freeman who spoke to a relative and friends in Paradise. The friend told Freeman that all the trees around the store were on fire, and there were explosions and thick dark smoke.
"I'm scared for them," said Freeman, who lives in Clements, California. "I'm just extremely concerned."
Officials were sending as many crews as they could gather, Carhart said.
"Every engine that we could put on the fire is on the fire right now, and more are coming," he said. "There are dozens of strike teams that we're bringing in from all parts of the state."
In Chico, west of the fire, resident Tina Greer said the care home where her disabled son lives with five other patients was evacuating. It takes time to pack the patients' medical equipment and medicine, she said. Her 25-year-old son has cerebral palsy, needs a wheelchair to get around and is fed through a tube.
"They need time to prepare," Greer said. "There's a lot to move."
Heavy ash was falling in Chico, she said.
The California Highway Patrol closed a nearby highway and urged motorists to avoid the area.
The National Weather Service issued red flag warnings for fire dangers in many areas of the state, saying low humidity and strong winds were expected to continue through Friday evening.
Associated Press writers Paul Elias, Jocelyn Gecker and Olga Rodriguez in San Francisco and Sophia Bollag in Sacramento also contributed to this report.