Death Toll Climbs In Northern California Fire
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Wildfires, once again, are ravaging California. Just outside of Los Angeles, fires there have burned more than 80,000 acres, destroyed more than 170 buildings and killed at least two people. And in Northern California, the situation is even more dire. In just a few days, a fire in the Sierra Nevada foothills has become the most destructive and the third-most deadly in the state, claiming the lives of at least 23 people. Just a few miles from the evacuation zone, there is reporter Sonja Hutson of member station KQED. She is in Oroville. Good morning.
SONJA HUTSON, BYLINE: Good morning.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sonja, we've heard that the town of Paradise has just been almost completely destroyed. You were out there yesterday. What did you see?
HUTSON: So the first thing you notice when you drive into this area, which is in kind of a forested canyon and still completely evacuated, is how thick the smoke is. I had to slow down in my car several times because I just couldn't see far enough in front of me. The smell of smoke is just totally overwhelming. And there's so much ash flying in the air it looks like snow. And it honestly looks kind of apocalyptic up there.
Almost all the buildings, especially in residential areas, are completely flattened - just unidentifiable debris where a house used to stand.
I also saw several cars on the side of the road that had been abandoned and then burned. So what I've been hearing from people is that the one road that goes in and out of this area was just completely jammed with cars - bumper-to-bumper traffic when people were trying to evacuate and the fire was kind of closing in on them. And the fire was coming so quickly and the cars were moving so slowly some people had to abandon their cars and walk to escape the fire.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How much progress of the firefighters been able to make so far?
HUTSON: Firefighters have said the fire is 20 percent contained. But the winds did pick up last night. So in about an hour we'll see what kind of effect that had. I ran into some people near the town of Centerville, which is in the next canyon over from that destroyed town of Paradise. And they had actually snuck back into the evacuation zone yesterday on mountain bikes and dirt bikes to help protect their homes by clearing vegetation and creating kind of a defensible space around their home. One of those people is David Coffee. And he was sitting on a bright yellow dirt bike on the side of the road when I met him. And here's what he had to say about the fire.
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DAVID COFFEE: I wouldn't say I'm surprised. We live in a tinderbox. We saw it happen in the last couple of years and just knew it was going to be our turn one these days. Here it is.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That just sounds terrifying. How are people holding up?
HUTSON: It really varies. Some people are really stoic in some pretty horrific circumstances. One woman I talked to yesterday, her son and his family are missing. But she just kind of refuses to believe that anything bad has happened to them. And she's just waiting for them to come out of the evacuation zone and be reunited with them.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: KQED's Sonja Hutson, thank you so much.
HUTSON: Thank you.
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