California Wildfire Pushes Toward Malibu, Pacific Ocean

David McNew/Getty Images
A blaze from the Woolsey Fire

A wildfire that moved so fast firefighters didn't even try to stop it killed nine people in the Northern California town of Paradise, authorities said Friday.

A wind-driven wildfire raged through Southern California communities on Friday, burning homes and forcing thousands of people to flee as it relentlessly pushed toward tony Malibu and the Pacific Ocean.

Fire officials couldn't estimate how many buildings were lost from the so-called Woolsey Fire burning in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, but said they were expected to be significant.

Tens of thousands of people were ordered to evacuate, but there were no injuries to residents or firefighters, said Los Angeles County Deputy Fire Chief Dave Richardson.

The fire was one of two that broke out Thursday in Ventura County even as the area was reeling from the deadly mass shooting at a crowded bar in Thousand Oaks. Another California fire 475 miles (765 kilometers) to the north leveled much of the town of Paradise in Butte County as it quadrupled in size. Nine people have been found dead. Entire neighborhoods are leveled. The business district is destroyed. In one day, this Sierra Nevada foothill town of 27,000 founded in the 1800s was largely incinerated by flames that moved so fast there was nothing firefighters could do.

The dead were found inside their cars and outside vehicles or homes after a desperate evacuation that Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea called "the worst-case scenario." Their identities were not yet known.

"It is what we feared for a long time," Honea said, noting that there was no time to go door to door.

Pacific Gas & Electric Company told state regulators that it experienced a problem on an electrical transmission line near the site of the blaze minutes before the fire broke out. The company said it later observed damage to a transmission tower on the line.

The utility said it will cooperate with any investigations, though PG&E spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo said Friday the information was preliminary and stressed that the cause of the fire has not been determined.

Firefighters had hoped to stop the fire's march south at the wide expanse of U.S. 101, but it jumped the freeway as the region's notorious Santa Ana winds spiked in the early morning hours.

Firefighting resources were stretched thin.

"The challenges are, number one, competing resources," Richardson said. "We all know this is the second fire that occurred in Ventura County, and it's on the heels of what's happened up in Northern California where they've had devastating loss in Butte County."

The fire rapidly climbed into the Santa Monica Mountains and raced toward the coast. "The perimeter is now the Pacific Ocean," Richardson said.

With fires also burning in Southern California, state officials put the total number of people forced from their homes at more than 200,000. Evacuation orders included the entire city of Malibu, which is home to 13,000, among them some of Hollywood's biggest stars.

Traffic jammed on sections of Pacific Coast Highway and some evacuated to popular Zuma Beach.

Some 2,000 firefighters were battling the flames as helicopters and airplanes made water and fire retardant drops.

The other fire burning to the west in Ventura County was also moving toward the ocean but its pace was slowed as it moved into the footprint of a 2013 wildfire that devoured vegetation on the far end of the Santa Monica range.

Forecasters expect a break in the Santa Ana winds on Saturday and then a new round Sunday through Tuesday.

Firefighters hoped a narrow window of calm Saturday would give them a chance to block Southern California wildfires that have marched on an inexorable path of destruction toward the sea, burning everything from mobile homes to mansions.

Winds that drove the flames through bone-dry hills and canyons north and west of downtown Los Angeles were expected to die down until Sunday, when they would build again to 35 mph with even higher gusts, forecasters predicted.

In less than two days, the Hill and Woolsey fires had destroyed more than 150 homes and prompted evacuation orders for more than 250,000 people, including the entire city of Malibu, which is home to some of Hollywood's biggest celebrities, officials said.

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

But with the winds returning, it's likely more homes would be lost, Osby warned. "There's not going to be any relief in this firefight," he said.

President Donald Trump issued an emergency declaration providing federal funding for Butte, Ventura and Los Angeles counties. He later threatened to withhold federal payments to California, claiming its forest management is "so poor."

Trump tweeted Saturday that "there is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly fires in California." Trump said "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!"