Escaping the blaze: Survivors tell their harrowing tales of flight from fire.
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@ sfchronicle.com; ljohnson@ sfchronicle.com; jtucker@ sfchronicle.com; email@example.com Twitter: @sarrav @jilltucker @lizziejohnsonnn @gwendolynawu