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Death toll rises to 25, as 200,000 flee fires in California, the worst in state’s history

The president, in a tweet, vowed no more federal payments if things were not fixed in state-managed forests.

A motorcycle begins to catch fire outside an engulfed structure at a park for recreational vehicles in Malibu, California.
A motorcycle begins to catch fire outside an engulfed structure at a park for recreational vehicles in Malibu, California.Read moreKyle Grillot / For The Washington Post

AGOURA HILLS, Calif. – College professor Jeff McClenahan hiked up a winding road Saturday toward a terrible unknown, expecting the worst.

The ferocious Woolsey Fire had come through Friday after leaping the freeway. McClenahan had grabbed his wife's computer and some documents and evacuated. That night, someone had posted a photo on social media of a nearby house consumed by the flames. He had stayed awake all night, thinking: "I'll never wear that cowboy hat again. I'll never wear that sweater again."

But fires can be capricious. Maybe he still had his home?

He arrived, and stared. A house that has succumbed to a wildfire is rarely just a little bit destroyed. The damage almost always looks as if the structure had been not merely been burned, but also bombed. A water pipe spurted halfheartedly over the ruins.

"On the one hand . . . it's stuff," McClenahan said, struggling to maintain his composure. "But it's a lot of history. Everything, our whole lives were in here."

"Oh, you get to start over," he said. Then he crumbled to his knees and sobbed.

The wildfires scorching California in the past few days have been vast, bringing their destruction and lethality to numerous communities across large swaths of the state, including this one in Los Angeles County and another gigantic burn along the northern mountains.

The Camp Fire, in the Sierra Nevada foothills north of Sacramento, is now the most-destructive individual wildfire in California's history. As of Saturday, it already had destroyed nearly 7,000 structures in and around the mountain town of Paradise and has been blamed for 25 deaths, though more could come. Sheriff's deputies are looking into 35 reports of missing people.

"This event was the worst-case scenario," Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said. "It's the event that we have feared for a long time."

The smoke, like orange fog, that enveloped Chico and surrounding towns Friday gave way to a low-lying haze that spread all the way up to Redding on Saturday, thanks to a shift in winds overnight.

Surgical nurse Nichole Jolly, who turned 34 on Friday, spent her birthday helping evacuate all the patients from Chico's only hospital. She didn't know if her home survived. After clearing the hospital, she tried to leave the area but was trapped by smoke and flames. Her car caught fire. A call from her husband, in a place where cellphone service is notoriously spotty, came through and "he told me to get out and run."

"I told him I wasn't sure I was going to make it out," she said. "I told him I loved him and told him to give the kids a kiss. He told me to get out of the car and run, that if you're going to die, die fighting."

A bulldozer picked her up and brought her back to Adventist Health Feather River hospital, where staff, trapped in place, started a triage area outside because "the whole place smelled like burned plastic."

Staff, patients and anyone who could hold a fire extinguisher watched for spot fires. She said there were about 10 nurses, two doctors and a respiratory therapist who spent the next five or six hours treating anyone who found their way to the hospital.

"People were making sure no one was left behind," she said. "Strangers helping strangers. We might be a divided country, but it didn't matter that day. Black, white, Democrat, Republican; none of that mattered. People just helped one another, and it was amazing to see."

Here in Southern California, investigators said two bodies were found, deaths that might be linked to the wildfire. Winds eased Saturday, but they are expected to ramp up again Sunday. The weather that is conducive to fires – dry air, not a drop of rain, high winds – is forecast to continue until late Tuesday.

About 200,000 people, enough to fill the Rose Bowl twice, were forced to evacuate from the Woolsey Fire, which sparked into existence midafternoon Thursday near Simi Valley even as fire departments were responding to a second wildfire, called the Hill Fire, just west of Thousand Oaks. The Woolsey Fire proved to be truly explosive, expanding within 24 hours to some 35,000 acres. It raced from the Conejo Valley to the Pacific Ocean, straight across Highway 101 and the Santa Monica mountains, at speeds that impressed veteran fire officials.

"It's spreading quicker than it used to," said Mark Lorenzen, chief of the Ventura County Fire Department.

They weren't surprised. They knew the wind was coming, and when there is wind here, there is fire, reliably. But David Richardson, deputy chief of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, said everyone had expected a lull in the wind Friday afternoon, and it didn't materialize. The gusts stayed dangerous.

"This fire is very bad and monumental. It's a historic fire," Richardson said. "These fires come along every 30 years or so."

This was an unpredictable fire, one that burned some houses to the foundation, everything gone, nothing but charred ruins, while leaving the one next door untouched. That was the case in Oak Park, which abuts the rugged hills separating Conejo Valley from Simi Valley. People were still gradually returning to their neighborhoods Saturday, and what they found was a largely intact community pocked with destroyed houses.

"It's just nature. Nature makes its choices," said a man walking his dog, too busy on his cellphone to provide his name or any other information.

Californians have a relationship with fire. They read smoke signals. They will study the fire glow on a ridgeline and forecast their immediate future based on what they smell. They know what to pack. They know to turn their cars around in the driveway, aimed toward safety.

They are required by law to have "defensible space" around their homes, free of brush, a firebreak built into the building codes. They know how fire spreads: "We get this ember wash. It looks like a billion fireflies," Lorenzen said.

The embers were largely gone Saturday, but the smoke remained – inescapable, pooling in lower elevations. Spot fires remained, and the ground smoldered. Among the things consumed by flames was Paramount Ranch, a fake Western town used for HBO's "Westworld" and other shows dating back more than a half-century.

Sharon Woods, 48, who owns a winery, lives just a few yards from McClenahan in Malibou Lake, and she was horrified by the hellscape all around her. Her two-story wooden house somehow had been spared, with a trail of fire circumventing it as it heeded the property line. The only things she lost were a couple of garbage cans. She'd won the fire lottery.

"I'm still completely dazed," she said. "I've been crying for 20 hours."

She surveyed the remnants of the neighborhood with Jeremy Sugarman, 39, a landscape architect whose home also survived.

"I'm very familiar with fire. This one, however, was exceptionally scary," Sugarman said. He recounted driving to Malibu to check on his mother's house: "We were seeing smoke tornadoes."

In Malibu, Pepperdine University's 3,600 undergraduates were ordered to shelter in place as the fire approached. That decision by university officials proved controversial, especially with parents, after the flames reached hillsides near campus. Overnight, debate had raged about whether the students were in the safest possible spot – or trapped and in danger.

It seems counterintuitive, said Connie Horton, Pepperdine's vice president for student affairs, but the Los Angeles County Fire Department supports the shelter-in-place plan as the safest course. "We have lived it a number of times over the years, practiced it, rehearsed it, trained on it," she said.

The flames had been extinguished near campus by early Saturday morning.

On Saturday, President Donald Trump made his first comments on the wildfires, blaming California's government for its management of the forests.

"There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor," Trump tweeted Saturday morning. "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!"

A spokesman for Gov. Jerry Brown, D, responded by saying that more federal forest land has burned than state land, adding that the state has expanded its forestry budget while the Trump administration has cut its budget for forest services.

Back in Oak Park, Richard Gwynn, 75, and his wife, Lynda Gwynn, 70, surveyed the burned landscape. She became emotional, looking at a canyon where her children had once played, which was now blackened by fire.

"Winds are coming back tonight and they're going to blow all day Monday," Richard Gwynn said. "But there's nothing left to burn."

Nearby, a rabbit hopped over charred ground.

"There's one alive?" he said.

"We can't get rid of them no matter what," Lynda Gwynn said.

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Williams reported from Paradise, California, and Wootson reported from Washington. The Washington Post's Susan Svrluga in Washington contributed to this report.