But the footage coming out of affected communities tells an unexpected story, says a U.S. fire expert — one that could have lessons for wildfire prevention measures.
Jack Cohen, a retired U.S. Forest Service scientist, focuses his research on investigating how homes ignite during extreme wildfires and how fires move through communities.
He says fireproofing individual homes may be the most critical part of preventing the spread of wildfires.
"Our perception is that this wall of fire comes through and destroys everything, and yet what I'm seeing is that there couldn't have been a wall of fire," Cohen told Stephen Quinn, the host of CBC's The Early Edition.
"The thing that would have carried the wall of fire is still there: The trees are still there and the structures are destroyed."
Instead of a wall of flames descending, burning embers blow downwind and ignite many spot fires over a wide area.
That's also why, from the photos coming out of the damaged communities, it looks almost as though there were hundreds of individual house fires rather than one fire sweeping through the entire town.
Removing clutter around homes that could become combustible is crucial, he said, and making sure there is nothing touching a structure that could ignite it.
“Strike team I have a firefighter with smoke inhalation," first responders said. "Transporting to Oroville hospital. We are about to get overrun here. We have got probably a thousand vehicles in here. Once the fire hits, we are going to pull the people out and put them in vehicles.”
"We make sure that we have no debris on the structure. We make sure that nothing can burn … within the first metre to metre-and-a-half [of the house]," he said.
"Don't just look at destroyed structures," Cohen said. "Look at the area around the destroyed structures and what you see is unconsumed vegetation."
Instead, he suggested, keep a 30 metre buffer around buildings by clearing debris and surface fuels like old firewood, twigs and dried grasses.
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More than 7,000 buildings were destroyed by the Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in Californias history. Many of the 52,000 residents forced to flee will not have anything left to come back to.
And we are learning more about the heroism of first responders who moved quickly to save lives in the early hours of the fire.
Instead of fleeing the blaze, Weldon and his mother chose to stay, and somehow they survived along with their home.
My mom said, Nuh-uh, I aint leaving. Shes 90 years old and blind, Weldon told CTV News. She said, I aint going anywhere. Leave me here, Ill burn up.
Refusing to leave her behind, Weldon got to work hosing down the home, trying to save their property and their lives.
In both events, strong winds out of the north and northeast threw flames across landscapes starved for rain. The fires exploded in darkness, devouring entire neighborhoods, taking lives and leading tens of thousands of residents to flee their homes. At their height, both fires moved at remarkable speeds of about two to three miles of spread per hour.
He says he didnt even have time to think, working as he watched the fire coming through the trees towards the house.
At moments, the flames came so close that Weldon laid down on the ground and turned the hose on himself – just hoping that the water would be enough to keep him alive.
Weldon says that with a change of wind, and angels here to watch us, he and his mother escaped death.
“The whole town got steamrolled,” he says. “Thats a rare event. If you look at the urban interface conflagrations, they usually assault on a city and peter out like in Oakland and in Bell Air, but this one was hit the town mid-rib, flanked around it and then by contagion the whole town burned up.”
The fire has killed at least 50 people. More than 100 others are missing — all of them from Paradise.
Although Weldon and his mother no longer have water or electricity, Weldon says hes rigged up a pump to supply the house with water from their swimming pool.
While theres still work to be done to fix their home, Weldon already has his sights set on a bigger project – rebuilding Paradise.
This is a beautiful community, Weldon said. People are very strong, very loving. And well put it back together.
Brad Weldon looks over the destruction the Camp wildfire caused near his home in Paradise, California.
Weldons home is one of the only buildings still standing, after he wetted the house to protect it from the fire.