Es­cap­ing the blaze: Sur­vivors tell their har­row­ing tales of flight from fire.

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Lizzie John­son, Jill Tucker, Sarah Ra­vani and Gwen­dolyn Wu

OROVILLE, Butte County — Di­ane Franklin awoke to a screech­ing smoke alarm in her trailer parked at the end of a dusty coun­try road near the com­mu­nity of Con­cow in the Sierra foothills.

Still in her flan­nel Star Wars pa­ja­mas, she ran out to her car with her three small dogs — and gunned it.

Franklin, 65, drove un­til she reached a fallen tree block­ing the road. She couldn’t pass, and the flames were so close she felt they were likely to burn her to death.

So she left her dogs in the car, scram­bled down a bank be­side the road to Cirby Creek and hopped in the wa­ter.

Two other peo­ple were al­ready there, seek­ing refuge. Franklin waited two hours in the cold stream, dunk­ing her pur­ple hair in the wa­ter so em­bers wouldn’t light it. The trees were on fire.

“I’m gonna die,” she re­called think­ing.

Franklin, whose dogs sur­vived in the car, was among countless res­i­dents who jumped in their cars Thurs­day morn­ing to es­cape the Camp Fire as it roared through the com­mu­ni­ties above Chico, only to later aban­don their stalled or trapped ve­hi­cles in a last­ditch ef­fort to live.

Cars, trucks and buses, many burned-out hulls, were found Fri­day aban­doned, left in the mid­dle of the road as evac­uees fled on foot rather than re­main trapped in un­mov­ing traf­fic.

Along Edge­wood Lane, a dead-end coun­try lane lined with houses on large, treefilled lots, the bod­ies of four vic­tims were found in their cars and one just out­side a ve­hi­cle, pre­sum­ably over­come by the smoke and flames be­fore they could make it to safety, au­thor­i­ties said. They were burned so badly that it was im­pos­si­ble to im­me­di­ately iden­tify them, ac­cord­ing to the Butte County Sher­iff ’s Depart­ment.

The vic­tims were the first con­firmed fa­tal­i­ties from the Camp Fire, which broke out at 6:30 a.m. Thurs­day. The bod­ies of an ad­di­tional four vic­tims were found in or around homes, of­fi­cials said Fri­day night. Au­thor­i­ties were look­ing into 35 re­ports of miss­ing per­sons on Fri­day and ex­pected that num­ber to grow. The Coro­ner’s Of­fice or­ga­nized a team to in­ves­ti­gate and iden­tify ad­di­tional fa­tal­i­ties.

On Fri­day, Franklin sat in an evac­u­a­tion cen­ter in Oroville, her dogs at her side. Fire­fight­ers pulled her out of the creek af­ter the fire had passed and loaded her and the dogs into the back of a rig. She had es­caped with her life, her pets and her pa­ja­mas. She lost ev­ery­thing else.

Other sur­vivors re­counted how close they came to be­ing among those fa­tal­i­ties as they fled along roads just like Edge­wood, iso­lated lanes and loops that were choked with cars and over­whelmed by smoke and burn­ing em­bers as peo­ple tried to drive to safety down the few exit routes. Many re­counted watch­ing bumpers catch fire and cars stalling out.

Chris­tine Fitzsim­mons, 50, and her hus­band, 48-year-old David Fitzsim­mons, evac­u­ated Thurs­day morn­ing along Sky­way, one of the hand­ful of paved routes out of Par­adise. With flames on both sides of the road, the heat was so in­tense that the car’s paint be­gan bub­bling. At one point, an elec­tri­cal pole slammed onto the road. They swerved around it.

They made it out, as did Bob Schofield, who left his house at Glen­wood Drive at 9:15 a.m., not far from where the five vic­tims were found a day later. When he fled with his wife, 15-year-old son, three dogs and two rab­bits, the fire was burn­ing just be­hind them.

“The smoke was so thick and it dropped down so low that when we fi­nally got down on the road, you could barely see the houses on the side of the road be­cause of how dark it was,” he said.

His home, which he’s had for two years, was on a “lit­tle side road.”

With spot fires heat­ing their car, they made it to the first in­ter­sec­tion, where a po­lice of­fi­cer or town vol­un­teer was di­rect­ing traf­fic. They fol­lowed a stream of cars down the hill and away from the flames.

Not far from Schofield, cars full of par­ents and chil­dren flee­ing Pon­derosa El­e­men­tary School found them­selves stuck on Pentz Road as spot fires and em­bers sur­rounded them, said Melissa Schus­ter, a Par­adise City Coun­cil­woman, adding that her daugh­ter-in­law and two grand­chil­dren were among them.

Her daugh­ter-in-law’s phone died af­ter she told her hus­band the car was on fire, Schus­ter said.

“Peo­ple ran out of gas, their calls stalled, you get stuck in traf­fic and you can’t get out,” the coun­cil­woman said. “The fire depart­ment was ac­tu­ally hos­ing down the cars to keep them from go­ing up in flames with the peo­ple in them.”

Those fire hoses saved her fam­ily, and the lives of countless oth­ers, Schus­ter added.

“It wasn’t about sav­ing homes,” she said of the fire­fight­ers’ ef­forts. “It was about sav­ing lives.” Sarah Ra­vani, Lizzie John­son, Jill Tucker and Gwen­dolyn Wu are San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle staff writ­ers. Email: sra­vani@ sfchron­i­; ljohn­son@ sfchron­i­; jtucker@ sfchron­i­; gwen­dolyn.wu@sfchron­i­ Twit­ter: @sar­rav @jill­tucker @lizziejohn­sonnn @gwen­doly­nawu

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