National News

Racing the Wildfires: Californians Recall Their Close Calls With the Advancing Flames

Posted November 12, 2018 7:41 p.m. EST

LOS ANGELES — Allyn Pierce was trapped by a wall of fire as he tried to flee the flames coming closer and closer to his truck. Chris Gonzalez counted the ever-narrowing escape routes from his home as the highlands around him erupted into flames. Rebecca Hacket was engulfed by a red-orange hellscape as she sped toward safety in her car.

Thirty-one people have died since California’s trio of wildfires broke out late last week, but countless other residents narrowly escaped with their lives. These survivors will never forget those close calls. Luck intervened. So did generosity. There were frantic prayers made.

“I was like, ‘I think I’m done,'” said Pierce, a registered nurse who was trapped in traffic in Paradise, California, where most of the community was burned. “I just kept thinking, I’m going to die in melting plastic.”

The Camp Fire, which erupted in Northern California on Thursday, has killed 29 people and burned through 113,000 acres of land. Already the most destructive fire in the state’s history, it remained just 25 percent contained as of midday Monday.

The Woolsey Fire outside Los Angeles, which started Thursday and doubled in size overnight, has killed two people and has burned nearly 100,000 acres. Both fires prompted the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people, some only realizing how dangerous the fires had become when flames arrived at their doorsteps.

The Hill Fire, which destroyed 4,500 acres in Ventura County, was 80 percent contained Monday, the result of aggressive firefighting and favorable weather conditions.

Wildfires have become a staple of life in this state. They start up suddenly and grow feverishly. Tracking their unpredictable movements, and awaiting authorities’ order to get out, is now part of being a Californian.

Fearing he may not make it out of Paradise alive, Pierce recorded a goodbye message to his family as the town burned to the ground around him.

“Just in case this doesn’t work out, I want you to know I really tried to make it out,” he later recalled saying into his phone. He held his coat against the window, a futile guard from the intense heat, and put on Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” to calm himself.

Just in time, a bulldozer came out of nowhere and knocked a burning vehicle out of his way, giving him enough space to flee. Anita Waters, 65, was trapped near her mobile-home park in Paradise, the El Dorado Mobile Estates, because authorities feared a nearby gas station could catch fire. Growing frustrated about waiting, she and several of her neighbors formed a caravan of five cars and decided to drive through the woods. But when a police officer stopped them and ordered Waters into a truck bed, she was forced to leave her car behind.

After riding for roughly a mile, she said she hopped out and walkedback; she had already lost her house, she said, and she did not want to lose her car, too.

“I took a chance on my life. Yes, I did,” she said. “But I felt I needed to.”

As she tried to leave Paradise after retrieving her car, she sometimes drove into trenches alongside the road to get around abandoned cars. What she saw, she said she will never forget. “There were some people that were stuck and the car was on fire and they were in the car,” she said through tears.

Still others decided not to evacuate at all, and had their close calls at home.

Gonzalez, 27, stayed at his house in Agoura Hills, California, despite evacuation orders. He began to second-guess how long he should stay as the air grew increasingly black. Fire engulfed the hills around his community and ripped through several neighborhoods. One house nearby spontaneously erupted in flames from stray embers.

“Basically there was like a ring of fire all around. There was this thick, thick smoke, and just a bunch of ashes everywhere,” he said. “The freeways are closed north and southbound, the canyons, there was no way in or out.”

Gonzalez said Monday that his home was spared and he was safe, though some neighbors were not so lucky.

In many of the communities, there was uncertainty as to how close the fire was when the evacuations began. Scott St. John, 42, an entrepreneur and fitness company owner, left his Point Dume home in Malibu on Friday morning with this family, feeling confident they and their home would be safe because it was down along the water.

The danger they had escaped became clearer as they drove north along the Pacific Coast Highway. “All you can see behind us is this blaze of orange,” he said. Another survivor, Hacket, found herself completely surrounded by flames as she sped down Kanan Road on Friday, outside White Cloud Ranch in Malibu. She documented her escape in videos that have gone viral on social media. Uncontrolled blazes lined the streets as she drove. The thick cloud of smoke closing in on her vehicle was so hot, so full of embers, that it burned bright orange.

“The fire came so quickly. One minute it was calm and then suddenly they were on top of us,” Hackett told a local ABC News affiliate. “I thought I was going to die.”

She added: “I just have to keep going, that’s all I could think. I just have to keep driving because if I don’t, no one is going to come in here and save me.”

Erin McLaughlin and her 81-year-old neighbor, Elisabeth Mesones, left their homes in Magalia, north of Paradise, Thursday morning. But after just a few minutes along the Skyway, they hit gridlock traffic. The sky was darkening, smoke was thickening and they could see small fires breaking out around them. But they could not move.

Trapped in traffic outside of Paradise, McLaughlin, 58, watched several other motorists commandeer a Pepsi truck to use as a shelter, which they later decided against. Conditions worsened and they heard propane tanks exploding on all sides.

“The next thing we get told is ‘Get out of your vehicle and run,'” McLaughlin said.

About 75 motorists hurried to the parking lot of a nearby Chinese restaurant. For the next six hours, they camped out there.

“Everything was on fire all around you,” she said. “It was the most scary thing I’ve ever seen.”

The fire never reached the group before they escaped. But a tour of Paradise on Sunday revealed that the fire eventually did arrive. The restaurant had burned down.

The evacuations resulted in moments of heroism, too.

Pierce, a registered nurse, did not end up leaving Paradise right away after his truck was freed. He instead returned to the main hospital, Adventist Health Feather River, where he manages the intensive care unit. He and some colleagues began treating injured neighbors. When the hospital caught fire, they relocated patients and equipment about 100 yards away, to the hospital’s helipad. Eventually, everyone made it out.

But now, even in safety with his family, Pierce said his near-death experience will live with him. “It’s completely traumatic,” he said. “When I close my eyes at night, I see fire.”