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Paradise lost in wildfire

No one is left in Paradise. Abandoned, charred vehicles clutter the main thoroughfare, evidence of the panicked evacuation a day earlier as a wildfire tore through the Northern California community.

Nine people have been found dead. Entire neighbourhoods are levelled. 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 blaze that started Thursday outside the hilly town of Paradise has grown to 404 square kilometres and destroyed more than 6,700 buildings, almost all of them homes, making it California's most destructive wildfire since record-keeping began. But crews have made gains and the fire is partially contained, officials said Saturday.

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.

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.

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!"

The fire in Paradise, about 290 km northeast of San Francisco, was still burning out of control.

A thick, yellow haze hung in the air, giving the appearance of twilight in the middle of the day. Some of the "majestic oaks" the town touts on its website still have fires burning in their trunks. Thick wooden posts holding up guardrails continued to burn.

An evacuation order Thursday set off a desperate exodus, with frantic motorists getting stuck in gridlocked traffic. Many abandoned their vehicles to flee on foot as the flames bore down on all sides.

"The fire was so close I could feel it in my car through rolled-up windows," said Rita Miller, who fled Paradise with her mother, who is disabled.

The town, situated on a ridge between two valleys, was a popular retirement community, raising concerns about elderly and immobile residents who have been reported missing.

On the outskirts of town, Patrick Knuthson, a fourth-generation resident, said only two of the 22 homes that once stood on his street are still there — his and a neighbour's.

"The fire burned from one house, to the next house, to the next house until they were pretty much all gone," Knuthson said.



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