Thousands flee fast-moving wildfire in Northern California

The massive plume from the Camp Fire, burning in the Feather River Canyon near Paradise, Calif., wafts over the Sacramento Valley as seen from Chico,

The massive plume from the Camp Fire, burning in the Feather River Canyon near Paradise, Calif., wafts over the Sacramento Valley as seen from Chico,

PARADISE, Calif. (AP) — Thousands of people were ordered to evacuate a fast-moving wildfire that exploded in size Thursday, threatening several Northern California communities and forcing panicked residents to race to help neighbors who had to drive through walls of flames to escape.

It was not immediately known if there were injuries or fatalities.

The Butte County Sheriff's office said an evacuation order was issued for areas of Paradise, a town of about 27,000 people 180 miles (290 kilometers) northeast of San Francisco.

Rick Carhart, a Cal Fire spokesman, said the wildfire was reported at 6:30 a.m., affecting about 30,000 people in the towns of Paradise, Concow and other small communities.

"The blaze is being driven by fairly strong winds," Carhart said. "It's really dry and we have low humidity and unfortunately those are great conditions for a fire to spread."

Thick grey smoke and ash filled the sky above Paradise and could be seen from miles away.

The Adventist Health Feather River Hospital in Paradise evacuated all its patients, given its close proximity to the fire, the facility said on its websites. It did not say how many patients were evacuated.

Enloe Medical Center in nearby Chico received 24 patients, spokeswoman Jolene Francis said.

Shary Bernacett said she and her husband tried to get people to leave the mobile home park they manage in Paradise and had minutes to evacuate as flames reached the east side of the town.

Bernacett said she and her husband "knocked on doors, yelled and screamed" to alert as many of the residents of 53 mobile homes and recreational vehicles as possible to leave.

"My husband tried his best to get everybody out. The whole hill's on fire. God help us!"" Bernacett said before breaking down crying.

She and her husband grabbed their dog, jumped in their pickup truck and drove through flames before getting to safety on Highway 99, she said.

Carhart said officials were sending as many crews as they could gather.

"Every engine that we could put on the fire, is on the fire right now and more are coming," he said. "There are dozens of strike teams that we're bringing in from all parts of the state."

In Chico, west of the fire, resident Tina Greer said the care home where her disabled son lives with five other patients was evacuating. She said it takes time to pack the patient's medical equipment and medicine. Her 25-year-old son has cerebral palsy, needs a wheelchair to get around and is fed through a tube.

"They need time to prepare," she said. "There's a lot to move."

Greer said heavy ash was falling in Chico.

The California Highway Patrol closed a nearby highway and urged motorists to avoid the area.

Fire officials say firefighters were working to access the area and that the blaze continues to spread.

The National Weather Service issued red flag warnings for fire dangers in many areas of the state, saying low humidity and strong winds were expected to continue through Friday evening.