“The whole town is burning,” Bob Van Camp, a Paradise resident who escaped on his motorbike, told local TV channel Action News Now. “We had to ride through flames to get here,” he said from the road between Paradise and Chico.
With the town located on a ridge and limited escape routes, traffic accidents turned roads into gridlock. Residents abandoned vehicles and ran from the flames carrying children and pets, officials said. One woman stuck in traffic went into labor, the Enterprise-Record newspaper reported.
“It’s very chaotic. It’s a very bad fire,” Officer Ryan Lambert of the California Highway Patrol said of the evacuation.
The blaze began early on Thursday and quickly charred 18,000 acres (3,237 hectares), forcing the evacuation of the 27,000 residents of Paradise, about 85 miles (240 km) north of Sacramento, Cal Fire said in a statement.
Authorities used a bulldozer to push abandoned cars out the way to reach Feather River Hospital and evacuate patients as flames engulfed its old wing and the roof of the emergency department, Butte County Supervisor Doug Teeter told reporters.
The hospital was later destroyed, Mike Mangas, a spokesman for operator Dignity Health, told Action News Now. The Paradise Immediate Care clinic was also destroyed, owner Brad Smith told the television station.