Woods 'exploded': California pastor tells of surviving deadly Camp Fire by sheltering in church

A pastor who has survived one of the deadly wildfires ravaging parts of California has spoken of how he and others escaped by taking refuge in his church building.

Doug Crowder, pastor of Magalia Pines Baptist Church, told Baptist Press he was helping evacuate around 30 people from the town because of the danger from the Camp Fire, one of the worst in California's history.

A Butte County deputy sheriff places tape at a location where human remains were found during the Camp Fire in Paradise.Reuters

The group was in the driveway of the church preparing to leave when suddenly 'the woods exploded. The Subway restaurant across the street exploded, and on all sides of us was fire.'

They took refuge in the church building, watching the flames consume neighbouring buildings. Thousands of gallons of propane denonated at a hardware store next door.

Crowder told BP that when they emerged the next day, everything around the church had been destroyed but they were 'totally unscathed'.

Most residents of Magalia and nearby Paradise had already gone, but Crowder had stayed to help the elderly, homeless and others who had been unable to leave.

His own home was destroyed along with those of three-quarters of the congregation, and his church is one of the only buildings left standing in the town. It is currently being used to house firefighters.

Crowder told BP it would be 'years' before Magalia was a town again. 'But all through that, our church will be standing and our church will be ministering,' he said.

The church will draw on assistance from the California Southern Baptist Convention's disaster relief ministry to support local people when they are allowed back.

Charles Woods, director of missions for the local Sierra Butte Baptist Association, told BP three other Southern Baptist churches have been affected by the Camp Fire, with the death of a member reported by at least one of those congregations. None of the churches has lost its building, but all the pastors' homes were destroyed.

The Camp Fire blaze has killed at least 42 people. Another 228 have been listed as missing.

Another two people have died in the separate Woolsey Fire that has destroyed 435 structures and displaced about 200,000 people in the mountains and foothills near Southern California's Malibu coast, west of Los Angeles.

Camp Fire – already ranked as the most destructive on record in California in terms of property losses – has consumed more than 7,100 homes and other structures since igniting on Thursday in Butte County's Sierra foothills, about 175 miles (280 km) north of San Francisco.