PARADISE, Calif. – A wildfire that moved so fast that firefighters couldn't hope to stop it quadrupled in size Friday after destroying several thousand buildings and leveling 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 kilometers).
"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 center.
"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 Cpt. 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.
In Paradise, Bass evacuated his family and then returned to the fire to help rescue several disabled residents, including a man trying to carry his bedridden wife to safety.
"It was just a wall of fire on each side of us, and we could hardly see the road in front of us," Bass said.
McLean estimated that several thousand buildings were lost in Paradise, about 180 miles (290 kilometers) northeast of San Francisco.
"Pretty much the community of Paradise is destroyed. It's that kind of devastation," he said.
Wildfires also erupted in Southern California, with reports early Friday of two large fires scorching about 23 square miles (60 square kilometers) and threatening numerous communities. ABC7.com reported that 75,000 homes were under evacuation orders along the border of Ventura and Los Angeles counties.
The National Weather Service issued extreme fire danger warnings in many areas of the state, saying low humidity and strong winds were expected to continue through the evening.
The fire in Paradise was reported shortly after daybreak Thursday.
In the midst of the chaos, officials said they could not provide figures on the number of wounded, but County Cal Fire Chief Darren Read said that at least two firefighters and multiple residents were injured.
"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 centers 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.
"They were abandoned because traffic was so bad, backed up for hours," Bass said.
Thick gray smoke and ash filled the sky above Paradise and could be seen from miles away.
"It was absolutely dark," said resident Mike Molloy, who said he made a decision based on the wind to leave Thursday morning, packing only the minimum and joining a sea of other vehicles.
Concerned friends and family posted frantic messages on Twitter and other sites saying they were looking for loved ones, particularly seniors who lived at retirement homes or alone.
Chico police officer John Barker and his partner evacuated several elderly people from an apartment complex.
"Most of them were immobile, with walkers or spouses that were bed-ridden, so we were trying to get additional units to come and try and help us, just taking as many as we could," he said. He described the community as having a lot of elderly residents, some with no vehicles.
Kelly Lee called shelters looking for her husband's 93-year-old grandmother, Dorothy Herrera, who was last heard from Thursday morning. Herrera, who lives in Paradise with her 88-year-old husband, Lou, left a frantic voicemail at around 9:30 a.m. saying they needed to get out.
"We never heard from them again," Lee said. "We're worried sick. ... They do have a car, but they both are older and can be confused at times."
Associated Press writers Paul Elias, Janie Har, Daisy Nguyen, Olga R. Rodriguez, Sudhin Thanawala and Juliet Williams in San Francisco, Sophia Bollag in Sacramento, Michelle A. Monroe in Phoenix and Jennifer Sinco Kelleher in Honolulu contributed to this report.