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Wildfire quadruples in size

A wildfire that moved so fast that firefighters couldn't hope to stop it quadrupled in size Friday after destroying several thousand buildings and levelling much of a Northern California town of nearly 30,000 people, authorities said.

Only a day after it began, the fire near the town of Paradise had grown to nearly 110 square miles (285 square kilometres).

"There was really no firefight involved," said Capt. Scott McLean of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, explaining that crews gave up on attacking the flames and instead helped people evacuate. "These firefighters were in the rescue mode all day yesterday."

The entire town was ordered evacuated, setting off a desperate exodus in which many motorists got struck in gridlocked traffic and abandoned their cars to flee foot. People in Paradise reported seeing much of the community go up in flames, including homes, supermarkets, businesses, restaurants, schools and a retirement centre.

"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 Capt. Bill Murphy said.

The winds calmed down in the valley, but they were still shifting and erratic, with speeds of up to 45 mph (72 kph) along ridge tops, he said.

"It's a very dangerous and very serious situation," Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said. "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." Several evacuation centres were set up in nearby towns.

Residents described fleeing their homes and getting stuck in traffic jams as the flames sparked explosions and toppled utility poles.

"Things started exploding," resident Gina Oviedo said. "People started getting out of their vehicles and running."

Many abandoned their cars and trucks on the side of the road.



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