National News

'Hell on Earth': The First 12 Hours of California's Deadliest Wildfire

Posted November 18, 2018 6:22 p.m. EST

The hills in Ojai, Calif., which were left bare after the Thomas Fire swept through the area last year, Nov. 16, 2018. So it is in California that as one town is only starting to comprehend its losses, another community is commemorating their last big wildfire. (Andrew Cullen/The New York Times)

With its evergreen forests and beautiful vistas, Paradise, population 26,000, has long been a haven for seniors and retirees, many of them residents of mobile homes.

The mountain town has likewise attracted families with children as a respite from the crippling costs that have made many California cities unaffordable.

It is in this lush terrain that the stage is set for a fiery disaster — the cul-de-sacs and winding wooded roads into the backcountry of Butte County.

Another defining element: the clock. It starts ticking around 7 a.m. for Jeffory Newton and his wife, Kathy — shortly after the fire breaks out near Poe Dam, about 8 miles from them. Asleep at their home on Marin Court in Magalia, they are awakened by a text from their daughter, en route to work at a Paradise hospital. “I can see flames,” the text reads.

The Newtons scramble, and their escape effort extends to family members. They first stop at their daughter’s house to rouse her son, then to a son’s house on Juno Court. The creeping, harrowing trip out in two vehicles takes 4 hours.

By 8 a.m., the first flames reach Paradise, where Ben Raulerson lives on Pearson Road. Raulerson, 44, is cursed with a bad car battery this morning. He gets a jump, but it is not enough.

The car dies again just as he and his mother-in-law are pulling out; she runs to the road and waves for help, and a man driving a pickup truck — Raulerson never learned his name — stops, most likely saving their lives.

“It was hell on earth getting out of there,” Raulerson said. “If we’d stayed 10 minutes longer, we would have been burned.”

The home of James Betts, 33, was near the Jack in the Box restaurant at Skyway and Oliver Road in Paradise. As the fire spread across town, it felt as if it was coming from two directions by the time he and seven others, including a pregnant woman, tried to leave on foot.

They, too, were saved by a good Samaritan who stopped and took them all in his truck. Betts looked back and saw his house on fire.

By 10:45 a.m., flames are engulfing Ridgewood Mobile Home Park, the retirement community. That is when the evacuation order reaches the incorporated area where Robert Catalano and his girlfriend, Chris Jennings, live on Rich Bar Road.

Catalano, 65, checks on a friend, and then goes back home, intending to wet down the roof before leaving, but the power is already out, so the pump in his well no longer works.

The fire destroys just about everything they own. But they survive, making it down Centerville Road to Honey Run, and then onto the bumper-to-bumper maelstrom of Skyway.

Skyway — a four-lane arterial that links the high pine country of the foothills and the valley cities like Chico — is a blessing to commuters and day-trippers. But on this day it becomes a place of desperation where people are stuck, creeping through gridlock as the flames close in.

Vehicles crash in the dense smoke, or run out of gas and are abandoned on the shoulder, making the passage harder still by narrowing the lanes for those still coming down. Skyway becomes a symbol of the fire, the name itself embedded in the story of the day.

The Camp Fire continues to burn 10 days after it started, now expanding mainly on its eastern edges. Officials said Saturday that the fire was about half contained. At least 76 people had been confirmed dead, and more than 1,000 were still missing.

Timeline:

The Camp Fire is the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California. This is what happened on the day the blaze ignited:

Around 6:30 a.m. Nov. 8, the fire starts in a secluded area near the Feather River. It spreads to about 10 acres by 6:51 a.m. Firefighters are trying to reach the fire.

The first evacuation order is tweeted by the Butte County sheriff at 7:23 a.m. for Pulga, a nearby community.

The fire accelerates, consuming the equivalent of a football field every second, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Around 8 a.m., the fire reaches the town of Paradise, which receives its first evacuation alert.

Also about 8 a.m., the managers of Ridgewood Mobile Home Park go door to door, urging residents to evacuate the retirement community.

About 10:30 a.m., Jason Portillo, 18, and his mother, Lidia Rosales, 50, evacuate their home. “It looked like it was nighttime. With the headlights on, we could see the orange and black clouds all around,” Portillo said.

Satellite imagery captured at 10:45 a.m. shows the fire engulfing about 20,000 acres.

By 2:30 p.m., evacuation orders have been issued for all of Paradise, the neighboring town of Magalia and surrounding areas.

The Wiggins family — John, 61, and Catherine, 57, and their son, Dominic, 17 — flees with important documents and mementos.

At 6 p.m., less than 12 hours after it started, the Camp Fire has traveled about 17 miles, burning an area of nearly 55,000 acres.