News North America

Sunday 22 September 2019

'My shoes were melting it was so hot' - fire survivors relive horror

Aftermath: Firefighters comb a house destroyed by fire in Paradise, California. Photo: Reuters
Aftermath: Firefighters comb a house destroyed by fire in Paradise, California. Photo: Reuters

Nick Allen

Survivors told how they fled California's apocalyptic wildfires as the soles of their shoes melted, celebrities returned to find their multi-million-dollar homes in ashes, and the state's governor warned "our whole way of life" was under threat.

As the fires continued to rage at both ends of the Golden State the death toll around the incinerated northern town of Paradise rose to 42, and 48 in total, making it the deadliest wildfire in the state's history. Two more dead have perished near Malibu in the south of the state.

The latest death toll was announced by the Butte County sheriff after authorities located the remains of 13 additional victims.

Thousands of firefighters were still searching for bodies among the smouldering ruins, and more than 200 people remained unaccounted for.

The dead have been found in burnt-out cars, in the smouldering ruins of their homes, or next to their vehicles, apparently overcome by smoke and flames before they could jump in behind the wheel and escape.

In some cases, there were only charred fragments of bone, so small that coroner's investigators used a wire basket to sift and sort them.

The home of Gerard Butler, the British actor, was among hundreds obliterated in Malibu.

He posted a photograph of the remains on the internet, writing: "Returned to my house in Malibu after evacuating. Heartbreaking time across California. Inspired as ever by the courage, spirit and sacrifice of firefighters."

Miley Cyrus, the singer, also lost her mansion. She said: "My house no longer stands but the memories shared with family and friends stand strong. I am grateful for all I have left."

Other celebrities known to have lost their homes in Malibu, just outside Los Angeles, included the musicians Neil Young and Robin Thicke.

Paradise, formerly a town of 27,000 people, 290km north-east of San Francisco, looked like it had been carpet-bombed.

Tim Aboudara, a firefighters union representative, said: "Paradise was literally wiped off the map."

Nichole Jolly (34), a local nurse, described how she was nearly killed driving away from a burning radiology building at the hospital.

Her truck was rammed into a ditch by another desperately fleeing vehicle, so she got out and approached another car but the door handles were melting, and her trousers caught on fire.

"I'm breathing in the hottest air I've ever been in. My throat is bloodied, I'm about to hit the ground but the bottom of my shoes were melting," she said.

"I put my hand out in front of me and prayed to God, 'Please, don't let me die like this'."

The nurse was rescued by firefighters heading towards the blaze.

Paradise was a popular retirement area and the large number of elderly residents made the evacuation more difficult, as did gridlock on the main road out of the isolated town.

Around 8,000 firefighters are battling the wildfires that have burned more than 1,000 square kilometres around the state, feeding on dry brush and driven by winds that have had a blowtorch effect.

They first ignited on Thursday in Butte County's Sierra foothills.

The fires then spread with an erratic intensity that has strained firefighting resources while catching many residents by surprise.

Winds abated on Saturday, giving firefighters a chance to gain some ground against the flames.

High winds returned on Sunday but fell again Monday morning, with crews managing to carve containment lines around 30pc of the Camp Fire perimeter, an area encompassing 117,000 acres of scorched, smouldering terrain.

Winds of up to 64kmh continued in Southern California throughout Tuesday, heightening the risk of fresh blazes ignited by scattered embers.

By the weekend the fire ranked as the most destructive on record in California in terms of property losses, having consumed more than 7,100 homes and other structures.

(© Daily Telegraph London)

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editors Choice

Also in World News