Update: All of Malibu went under an evacuation order on Friday afternoon. Five people are reported dead in the Camp Fire, which reports indicate has completely destroyed the town of Paradise, California.
“By the end of the day, I expect to be standing on the beach, shooting a fire burning to the Pacific Ocean,” Stuart Palley, a wildfire photographer who has spent the past five years shooting wildfires in California, told me over the phone Friday morning. He called me as he was driving south on the Pacific Coast Highway, headed from Oxnard to Malibu.
He expects to encounter extremely dangerous conditions in Malibu, as the Santa Ana winds blowing out to sea hit on-shore winds from the ocean. “The swirling winds create unpredictable conditions and that’s when people die,” Palley says.
There are two fires currently burning around Malibu: the Hill and Woolsey fires. As of this morning, the Hill Fire had burned 7,000 acres and the Woolsey Fire 10,000. Togeher, they’ve jumped the 101 freeway, burning into the Santa Monica Mountains and forcing the evacuation of 75,000 homes. Meanwhile, an as-yet-unnamed fire in Griffith Park started Friday morning; it has already burned 30 acres and is forcing the evacuation of animals at the zoo. Then there's the Camp Fire in northern California that burned 1,000 structures overnight and has grown to 70,000 acres. CNN says that in total, the fires caused 150,000 Californians to be evacuated from their homes last night.
All of the above fires are developing so rapidly that there's very little reliable details about them online. (I encourage readers to consult CalFire, the radio, and first responders for the most up-to-date information.)
Tens of thousands of people are under mandatory evacuation orders and Palley says that the fires in the Santa Monica Mountains, above Malibu, have developed so fast that many of the roads there have become impassable even to firefighters. Residents are under instructions to shelter in place.
“So far there have not been any civilian casualties,” says Palley. “But that could change very fast.” He described “apocalyptic” conditions to me as he drove towards Malibu.
Fuel loads across California’s brush-covered hills are extremely high, humidity is extremely low, and there's no rain in the forecast. Over 20 million people in the state are currently under red-flag fire warnings. “These are the worst wildland-urban interface fire conditions I’ve ever seen,” says Palley.