Driven by strong winds and dry conditions, the blaze dubbed the Camp Fire, roared through the town of Paradise, forcing the population to flee in a chaotic mass evacuation.
Fire ripped through residential areas and flames leapt from hospitals and schools, according to a Reuters witness, who saw a car dealership go up in flames on a street clogged with burned out vehicles and an abandoned police cruiser.
Paradise, with a population of 26,000 people, is located about 85 miles (240 km) north of Sacramento, the capital city of California.
“The town is devastated, everything is destroyed,” said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) spokesman Scott Maclean, who spent much of the day in Paradise. “There’s nothing much left standing.”
Terrifying videos posted on social media showed cars driving along roads that looked like tunnels of fire with flames on both sides of the road.
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.
“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.”
The town of Chico, population 93,000, could be next in the path of the wildfire, as flames were driven westward by 35-mile-per hour (56 km-per-hour) winds, said Butte County Fire Chief Darren Read.
“We have received reports of some fatalities. Those reports have not yet been verified,” Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea told a news conference.
California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency for the fire-stricken area and requested a presidential disaster declaration, saying that dangerous weather conditions were expected to last several days.
The fire was the fiercest of several wind-driven blazes across California on Thursday, during one of the state’s worst years for wildfires.
“It’s very chaotic. It’s a very bad fire,” Officer Ryan Lambert of the California Highway Patrol said of the evacuation in Paradise.
The blaze began early on Thursday and had charred 20,000 acres (8,093 hectares) by 8 pm local time, said Cal Fire spokesman Rick Carhart.
Rescuers used a bulldozer to push abandoned cars out the way to reach Feather River Hospital and evacuate patients as flames engulfed the building, Butte County Supervisor Doug Teeter told reporters.
The hospital was totally destroyed, said Mike Mangas, a spokesman for operator Dignity Health.