California wildfires: 9 dead, thousands forced to flee

A firefighter hoses down a property engulfed in flames during the Woosley Fire in Malibu, California. (Reuters Photo)

Nine people were killed and hundreds of thousands ordered to evacuate as wildfires raged Saturday across California, with one rapidly spreading blaze threatening the resort of Malibu, home to Hollywood stars.

The fatalities were reported in a massive late-season inferno in the town of Paradise, in Butte County north of the state capital Sacramento, where some 6,700 structures went up in flames - officially becoming California's most destructive fire on record.

The fast-moving blaze, which authorities have named the "Camp Fire", broke out Thursday morning. Fanned by strong winds, it has scorched 90,000 acres (36,400 hectares) and is only five per cent contained, the California Fire Department (Cal Fire)said late Friday.

Other large fires raged in southern California, including one just north of Los Angeles and another in Ventura County near Thousand Oaks, where a Marine Corps veteran shot dead 12 people in a country music bar on Wednesday night.

"The magnitude of destruction we have seen is really unbelievable and heartbreaking and our hearts go to everybody who has been affected by this," said Mark Ghilarducci, the director of the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services.

Governor-elect Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency to provide assistance to the fire-hit areas.

Butte County Sheriff Korey Honea said late Friday it was his "sad duty" to update the Camp Fire death toll to nine.

"I don't have all of the details because we have investigators out on the field" trying to reach the locations where casualties were reported, Honea told reporters.

But he did say that four people were found inside a vehicle in the Paradise area, while another was found nearby. Three more were found outside a residence, and one inside a house. Officials earlier said that five people had died in vehicles overcome by the fire.

Dozens of other people were reported missing.

Residents who escaped Paradise posted harrowing videos to social media as they drove through tunnels of swirling smoke and orange flames to outrun the wildfire.

The flames destroyed hundreds of homes, a hospital, a gas station, several restaurants and numerous vehicles, officials said.

Mandatory evacuation orders were issued for more than 52,000 people in the scenic area in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

"The whole lower side of Paradise is totally engulfed in flames right now," Kevin Winstead, a resident of nearby Magalia, told KIEM TV. "All of it is engulfed in flames right now.

"Not one home will be left standing," he said. "I'm devastated."

"We're just hoping that our brand new home that we were hoping to move into tomorrow is not burned to the ground," Winstead said.

California has endured abnormally dry weather for years. Much of the south, including the Los Angeles area, is experiencing drought conditions according to official data.

President Donald Trump showed no sympathy for the famously liberal state. "There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor," Trump tweeted on Saturday.

"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!"

In southern California, authorities said some 200,000 people are under evacuation orders.

The Ventura County Fire Department said the "Woolsey Fire" had burned around 35,000 acres, was not contained, and that evacuation orders were issued for some 88,000 homes in the county and neighbouring Los Angeles County.

Out of control, wind-driven flames triggered mandatory evacuations, including for the entire city of Malibu.

The wildfire destroyed Paramount Ranch, a movie set for cowboy shows including HBO'S Westworld, officials said.

Cal Fire posted footage taken from helicopters that showed flames racing over hill ridges towards multi-million dollar mansions.

"We heard this was coming so we set up on the sprinklers and we hosed the whole house down," said Patrick Henry, a Malibu resident. "We pretty much had enough time to get the dogs in the trunk."

Malibu is one of the most in-demand locations in California for Hollywood stars seeking privacy and luxury and has been home to Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, Jennifer Aniston, Halle Berry, Charlize Theron, Brad Pitt and a host of other celebrities.

Reality TV star Kim Kardashian West, who lives just north of coastal Malibu in Calabasas, revealed on Instagram that she was forced to flee her home.

"Just landed back home and had 1 hour to pack up & evacuate our home. I pray everyone is safe," she said.

TV star Charlie Sheen tweeted that his father, Martin Sheen, and his mother Janet were both missing - but the pair surfaced unharmed hours later at a beachside evacuation spot.

"We're fine, we're at Zuma Beach and we're probably going to sleep in the car tonight," Martin Sheen told Fox News 11, addressing his adult children.

Sheen said this was the worst fire he had seen in 48 years of living in Malibu.

Director Guillermo del Toro tweeted that Bleak House, his museum of horror movie memorabilia, was also in the path of the flames.

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California wildfires: 9 dead, thousands forced to flee

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