On the morning of Nov. From his station bunk at the head of Jarbo Gap, Capt. At a. A report of fire came at Fifteen minutes later, McKenzie stood at the dam looking helplessly across the river canyon at a acre fire on the rock slope above. He had no way to reach it.
Its unpaved access route, Camp Creek Road, clung to the mountain so precariously that rock slides threatened to erase it.
The last time he put a heavy wildland engine on the crumbling grade, it took an hour to creep a mile, mirrors folded in, a man walking beside each wheel to watch for collapse. It would be a death sentence to send a crew out there in a fire. But this one was being lashed by a canyon vortex locals call the Jarbo wind.
McKenzie understood the immense capability of this little fire. It was the disaster he had trained for. He called for an evacuation of the nearby community of Pulga and ordered a slew of engines, water tankers, bulldozers and strike teams. The wind was faster. Already, it lofted a blizzard of embers toward nearby towns.
These are the victims of the California wildfires. People were trapped and dying in the mountain enclave of Concow and homes were burning at the top of the ridge in Paradise before a fleet of helicopters and tankers could lift off. By sunset, the fire had swept 19 miles over an entire mountain, surprising, trapping, terrifying and killing — the most destructive and deadliest in California history.
Concow and the city of Paradise are largely gone, ading mountain towns devastated.
Eight days into the search, the death toll is 76 and rising. Survivors, emergency radio recordings and s by officials depict the chaos of that nightmare: a staggered evacuation plan that fell tragically short, residents with no warning to get out, and gridlocked evacuation routes that became fire traps, forcing hundreds to try to outrun the fire on foot.
The fire moved so fast — faster than emergency officials grasped, faster than evacuation orders could be acted on — consuming entire neighborhoods before people could flee.
Susanne and Gilbert Orr were eating breakfast when they saw flames outside their kitchen window. The couple lived in Concow, a small mountain community of homesteaders, retirees and marijuana growers a little more than five miles upslope from where the fire began. Four minutes after that, a home was ablaze. A minute later came orders to evacuate.
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More homes caught fire. The Orrs piled into their old Trans Am with their dog Duke. It trapped a state fire crew and 20 residents. McKenzie radioed instructions for the fleeing villagers to seek the relative safety of a park. Out of desperation, some plunged into a creek feeding the Concow Reservoir. A fire captain and his crew deployed their emergency shelters to shield civilians as the heat blast rolled in.
When it passed, firefighters radioed they were coming out with three people who had burns over half their bodies.
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A year-old man was pulled from the water with hypothermia. At least eight people were killed. Even as Concow burned, state fire crews saw Paradise was in peril. A fire chief calling to evacuate the entire eastern flank of the town came across the radio at a. Paradise had been spared from the frequent wildfires of Butte County, though one 10 years ago stopped at the edge of the old mining town.
The evacuation had been a disaster.
Three of the four major ro out had caught fire. Evacuees were trapped for three hours in gridlock, leaving them defenseless if the fire had come. A grand jury report and county fire plans said Paradise needed a way to get everyone out quickly at once. Instead, Paradise leaders divided the town into evacuation zones that could be emptied a few at a time. Following the lead of other fire-prone counties, Butte County contracted for a private warning system to alert residents in danger — if they had the foresight to up.
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The result was that as the Camp fire entered Paradise, the evacuation order issued at a. Within two minutes of the broader warning, the first major traffic jam was reported. Then the evacuation corridors caught fire, as they had a decade before. Nichole Jolly knew it was coming. Staff at the hospital had begun moving out its 67 patients before the official evacuation warnings. Now Jolly searched the halls and bathrooms to be sure no one was left.
As she pulled out of the parking lot, the human resources building was on fire. So was the crossroad to the other nearest exit route.
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Cars inched forward as brush burned on both sides of them and embers rained. People yelled to be heard over the sound of exploding car tires. The fire caught up to Jolly on Pearson Road, blasting her car with heat. She reached for the stethoscope slung around her neck and flinched as the metal burned.
Her steering wheel was melting — the plastic stuck to her hands. As her car caught fire and began to fill with black smoke, she called her husband. The rubber on her shoes melted into the asphalt.
The back of her scrubs caught fire, blistering her legs. I have to run. Jolly plunged into the smoke, now blinding, and ran with her hands stretched out in front of her. She hit firm, hot metal. A firetruck. Two firefighters lifted her in and radioed for help, pleading for a water drop. They went back through the fire, back past the burning carcasses of a California Highway Patrol car and a state fire vehicle, also abandoned, their occupants fleeing on foot. The gridlock was happening all over Paradise.
Now it was being asked to empty a city of nearly 27, On Edgewood Lane, a long residential drive with only one way out, evacuees inched forward through smoke, then flames. Motorists scrambled from their cars. William Hart, 44, a professional umpire accustomed to the split decisions of baseball, scooped up passengers.
A panicked woman by the side of the road. Two dogs. One of them hesitated. The fire surrounding them was hot and white. It roared like the engines in a drag race. He saw a human form on fire in a car. Somehow his car kept going.
There was a backlog of 40 people trapped and needing evacuation assistance. Honea paused at Skyway and Elliott Road to direct traffic, as if he could will it to move. The Paradise city police officer he assisted was his daughter. It was hard to leave.