“We were surrounded by fire. We were driving through fire on each side of the road,” police officer Mark Bass said.
On Friday, the massive blaze spread north, prompting officials to order the evacuation of Stirling City and Inskip, two communities north of Paradise along the Sierra Nevada foothills.
The wind-driven blaze also spread to the west and reached the edge of Chico, a city of 90,000 people. Firefighters were able to stop the flames at the edge of the city, where evacuation orders remained in place Friday, said Cal Fire Cpt. Bill Murphy said.
The winds calmed down in the valley, but they were still shifting and erratic, with speeds of up to 72kmh along ridge tops, he said.
In Paradise, Bass evacuated his family and then returned to the fire to help rescue several disabled residents, including a man trying to carry his bedridden wife to safety.
“It was just a wall of fire on each side of us, and we could hardly see the road in front of us,” Bass said.
McLean estimated that several thousand buildings were lost in Paradise, about 290km northeast of San Francisco.
“Pretty much the community of Paradise is destroyed. It’s that kind of devastation,” he said.
Wildfires also erupted in Southern California. ABC7.com reported that 75,000 homes were under evacuation orders along the border of Ventura and Los Angeles counties.
The National Weather Service issued extreme fire danger warnings in many areas of the state, saying low humidity and strong winds were expected to continue through the evening.