While dawn in California is still a few hours away, it will rise on a town completely changed. The 27,000-person community of Paradise was ravaged by the explosive Camp Fire last night. Early reports indicate the entire town was basically wiped out, and residents died or were severely burned trying to escape the inferno.
“Pretty much the community of Paradise is destroyed, it’s that kind of devastation,” CALFIRE Captain Scott McLean said, according to the AP. “The wind that was predicted came and just wiped it out.”
McLean estimated the fire had destroyed thousands of structures, which would immediately vault the Camp Fire into the record books as one of California’s most destructive fires in history. The nine worst fires the state have seen all burned at least 1,000 buildings, with the top three topping 2,000.
Regardless of where it lands on the list, it’s clear that the Camp Fire has irrevocably changed the lives of thousands of people who stood—or still stand—in its path. The fire began in the Plumas National Forest, where it was first reported around 6:30 a.m. PT on Thursday. It grew explosively throughout the day as it marched westward. By 9:30 a.m., it had consumed at least 5,000 acres. Eleven hours later, that total was up to at least 20,000 acres, the flames urged on by powerful winds across a dry landscape.
The town of Paradise sits right in the middle of the acres burned. As the fire unfolded throughout the day, reports on the police scanner recounted scenes of unspeakable terror. The speed that the fire grew caught residents off guard, and the evacuation slowed to a crawl in some places. Officials on the scanner reported abandoned cars and people running for shelter in local stores as the Camp Fire bore down on town. Residents confirmed the scenes to the AP.
“Things started exploding,” Gina Oviedo told the AP. “People started getting out of their vehicles and running.”
Videos posted to social media show heart-pounding footage of people driving through walls of flame and smoke in an effort to outrace the fire. Local news crews also spotted a fire whirl—the baby but no less terrifying cousin of firenados like the one sparked by the Carr Fire earlier this year—whipping outside Paradise.
With firefighters in full life-saving mode, the Camp Fire is essentially uncontained. Reports late Tuesday night indicate that it had jumped a highway and was spreading south and west including toward Chico, a town of 93,000. CALFIRE reports there are still 15,000 structures in harm’s way.
“Due to the fluid and rapidly changing conditions, residents are urged to stay updated through official sources for changes to evacuations and road closures,” CALFIRE warned. Because of heavy web traffic, the Butte County Sheriff has been using Twitter to post the most updated evacuation information so if you live there, refresh it regularly.
When the flames finally are put out and residents are able to return to Paradise, they’ll find a vastly different place than the one they fled from. And they’ll face a dilemma that more and more Californians have had to face: rebuild or leave. In a world where climate change is making wildfire season longer and fires more destructive, the former is an increasingly harrowing proposition.