California wildfires roar unchecked, drive 250000 people from homes

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Ferocious flames in southern California neared coastal homes along the famed Pacific Coast Highway in the Malibu area. Footage of the wind-driven wildfire was taken by a crew on board a Los Angeles County Fire Department Firehawk helicoper. USA TODAY

MALIBU, Calif. – Firefighters hoped that a brief lull in howling winds would give them a chance on Saturday to block, or at least slow, one of two massive California wildfires that have left nine people dead and driven a quarter-million people from their homes.

Cal Fire officials said the Woolsey fire, that destroyed at least 150 homes and forced residents to evacuate the entire seaside town of Malibu, was still listed as “zero contained.” 

The Camp Fire, which wiped out the town of Paradise in Butte County, 80 miles north of Sacramento, was only five percent contained.

The brief respite in the high winds Saturday could give firefighters a chance to control the edges of the blazes and to swap crews, replacing firefighters who had worked for two days without rest, Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said.

But with the winds expected to return to 35 mph gusts on Sunday, it’s likely more homes would be lost, Osby warned.

Two additional fatalities reported in Malibu may have been related to the fire that swept the area Friday night, according to Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner Investigator Nani Cholakians said, KTLA-TV reported.

In Paris, President Donald Trump issued an emergency declaration providing federal funds for Butte, Ventura and Los Angeles counties but later threatened on Twitter to withhold federal payments to California, claiming its forest management is “so poor.”

“Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests,” he wrote. “Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”

Hardest hit was Paradise, a town of 27,000 in the Sierra Nevada foothills, where nine people died, some torched inside their cars as they were attempting to flee the sudden approach of the flames.

The town is a popular retirement community, raising concerns of elderly and immobile residents who have been reported missing.

On Friday, dozens of burned-out cars and SUVs lined the main road out of Paradise known simply as Skyway, stripped down to their bare metal by flames that melted aluminum engine blocks, vaporized plastic door handles and exploded their windows.

In the afternoon, a small army of firefighters and emergency workers picked their way through the debris, small fires burning in trees and in the ruins of houses. Power lines littered the streets, and heavy smoke blocked out the sun.

For Cinda Larimer, it was the fourth time in 20 years that she has evacuated her home in Paradise. Three times she has came back to an untouched structure.

Not this time. All she now has left is a minivan stuffed with four cats, a turtle and her dog named Buddy.

“We’ve lost it all,” Larimer, 53, said as ash from the burning town drifted onto her shoulders about five miles outside of Paradise. “My mother, she evacuated and only took two outfits. Why? For the same reason: We all thought we’d be going home today.”

More: California wildfires already the most destructive in state history

More: Trump threatens to pull federal funds for Calif. wildfires over forest ‘mismanagement’

More: Inside California’s worst-ever wildfire

The Camp Fire, which has exploded to 140 square miles and has destroyed more than 6,700 structures — most of them homes — is California’s most destructive wildfire since record-keeping began.

In Southern California, west of Los Angeles, the Woolsey fire has ballooned to almost 55 acres after jumping Highway 101, the main coastal artery, and racing to the sea.

In less than two days, the Woolsey Fire and the smaller Hill Fire, also in Ventura County, have destroyed more than 150 homes and prompted evacuation orders for more than 250,000 people, fire officials said.

Officials ordered the evacuation of the entire city, which stretches 21 miles along the coastline and includes the homes of such celebrities as Lady Gaga, Mel Gibson and Cher.

The attempt to flee the flames has been hampered by clogged roads. In addition, power has been cut off in many parts of Malibu, causing gas pumps not to work.

Woodyard reported from Malibu, Hughes from Paradise, California.

Contributing: The Associated Press

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