Seventy-six people are dead. At least 1,276 are missing. And more than 7 million have been confined to their homes, as a cloud of toxic, corrosive ash darkens their windows and creeps under their doors.
The Camp Fire—which is still burning across some 232 square miles of Northern California—now ranks among the worst natural disasters to hit the United States this century. Only a handful of hurricanes and a “super outbreak” of tornadoes in 2011 have killed more Americans. This fire has robbed more Californians of their lives than has any earthquake since 1933.
It came like an ocean of flame. At 6:33 a.m. on Thursday, November 8, someone called 911 about a fire in the woods on Camp Creek Road. (The road would lend the fire its bitterly ironic name.) When firefighters arrived 10 minutes later, they noted the parched conditions and the harsh, hot wind. “This has got the potential for a major incident,” one said over the radio.
For the next 24 hours, the Camp Fire devoured roughly a football field of forest every second. By 11 a.m., it grew to 1,000 acres. By noon, its ash cloud blocked out the sun. By 1 p.m., that plume was visible from space, a gray blot smearing across the green of California. That morning, the 26,000 residents of Paradise began to evacuate. But the fire moved too fast. It consumed homes before their occupants could flee and devoured cars while they sat on the road out of town. Later, authorities revealed that in the pandemonium, bulldozers cleared torched cars off the highway so that the cars behind them could escape.