"There was really no firefight involved", Captain Scott McLean of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said, explaining that crews gave up attacking the flames and instead helped people get out alive.
"It was the event we have feared for a long time", Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said at a Friday evening press conference.
Rural areas fared little better. Authorities said earlier the flames had destroyed multiple structures, though it was unclear how many, and it continued to threaten at least 30,000 homes in the two counties.
"We were surrounded by fire".
Evacuation orders were imposed overnight affecting tens of thousands of residents in both counties, and at 10 a.m. Friday, mandatory evacuation orders were expanded to include the entire city of Malibu.
The fire also reached the edge of Chico, a city of 90,000 people.
Overnight, three rapid-moving fires spreading across California have destroyed thousands of structures and forced the evacuation of an estimated 157,000 people. "It's that kind of devastation", McLean said.
The winds calmed down in the valley, but they were still shifting and erratic, with speeds of up to 45 miles per hour along ridge tops, he said. Some crashed and others left their vehicles by the roadside.
A woman named Rita Miller was called by a nursing official on Thursday morning and given orders to get her disabled mother and flee the own.
Ms Miller jumped in her boyfriend's pick-up truck, which was low on petrol and equipped with a bad transmission. She instantly found herself stuck in gridlock.
After an hour of no movement, she got out of the vehicle and began moving on foot. While walking, a stranger in the traffic jam rolled down her window asked Miller if she needed help.
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"Everything was ignited by the time I got out of my house, everything was on fire", another person said. Miller at first she scoffed at the notion of getting back in a stopped auto. Then she reconsidered, thinking: "I'm really scared, this is terrifying, I can't breathe, I can't see and maybe I should humble myself and get in this woman's vehicle".
The mapping flight at 6 p.m. Thursday determined that the fire had burned over 54,000 acres, but the satellite data from 8 hours later showed that it had increased substantially since then, possibly as much as an additional 15,000 acres.
Concerned friends and family posted anxious messages on Twitter and other sites, saying they were looking for loved ones, particularly seniors who lived at retirement homes or alone.
Authorities said around 105,000 people had been evacuated in southern California.
"There are times when you have such rapid-moving fires ... no amount of planning is going to result in a flawless scenario, and that's what we had to deal with here", Mr Honea told the Action News Network.
Many of the Ventura County public schools closed on Friday, as well as nearby Pepperdine University, Moorpark Community College, California State University Channel Islands, and Cal Lutheran University.
"The magnitude of destruction we have seen is really unbelievable and heartbreaking and our hearts go to everybody who has been affected by this", said Mark Ghilarducci, the director of the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services.
The cause of the fires is unclear, but dry conditions and unpredictable winds have made things difficult for the 2,2000 firefighters working hard to contain them. "We're anxious sick. They do have a vehicle, but they both are older and can be confused at times".
An update from fire officials puts the blaze at 100,000 acres (or about 40,468 hectares) this morning.