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Wildfires force residents to flee Paradise

  • Story Highlights
  • NEW: Half of Paradise's 26,000 residents have been forced to evacuate
  • NEW: The blaze has torched 40 homes in the area, officials say
  • Wind gusts, high temperatures make task harder for firefighters
  • More than 614,000 acres have burned in California in past few weeks
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BIG SUR, California (CNN) -- Thousands of people living in Paradise are fleeing their small northern California town Wednesday as wildfires charge into the area, officials said.

More than half the town's 26,000 residents have been evacuated as firefighters struggled to battle growing wildfires in the area, authorities said. Residents of the nearby town of Concow had already been told to leave their homes.

As of 10 a.m. about 14,000 people had been evacuated from Paradise, said Chuck Rough, director of the emergency operations center in the town.

"We don't have much containment," said Rough, who said thick smoke in the area had made it impossible to fight the fire by air Tuesday. "Today we are holding our breath literally and figuratively."

The blaze -- one of several in Butte County -- has already torched 40 homes. It's just one of the 1,780 wildfires that have scorched more than 614,000 acres in the state in the last few weeks.

Most of the fires have been caused by lightning strikes. There were still 323 active fires Wednesday that were being battled by about 20,000 federal, state and local firefighters, authorities said.

The fires near Paradise, which is about 90 miles north of Sacramento, California, threatened thousands of homes, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire.

Residents streamed to shelters in the area, some not knowing if their homes had been destroyed, said Jeannine Olson, a volunteer nurse at Neighborhood Church in the nearby city of Chico.

Olson said the church shelter was filled to capacity with about 150 people, and 20 more were living in their cars in the church parking lot.

"People are a little scared and are wondering what is going on," she said. "But people here are trying to handle this the best they can."

Wind gusts of more than 40 mph pushed the fire dangerously close to many residential communities in the area, said Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant. Video Watch TV crew driven into fire »

"We were lucky that the winds did not pick up last night as it was predicted," he said. "But there are still some immediate threats." Video Watch what's left of burned home in Big Sur »

Conditions seemed to be getting a little bit better in the fight against a wildfire near the central California coastal community of Big Sur. Share your photos, videos of the fires

The mandatory evacuations in that area had been downgraded to an advisory Tuesday, according to local and federal fire officials. But the Basin Complex Fire was only 27 percent contained Wednesday, according to federal fire authorities. It has torched more than 86,700 acres, and containment is not expected until the end of the month. Video Watch why fires could be related to global warming »


The nearby Indians Fire, in the Ventana Wilderness, was 97 percent contained after burning more than 81,000 acres, the U.S. Forest Service said.

Further south, in coastal Santa Barbara County, the Gap Fire, which has burned 9,710 acres, was 55 percent contained, the Forest Service said.

All About Wildfires

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