Sur­vivors re­call har­row­ing es­capes from firestorm in Butte County

San Francisco Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Lizzie John­son 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 spoke from an evac­u­a­tion cen­ter in Oroville af­ter the Camp Fire dev­as­tated many areas of Butte County in­clud­ing much of the town of Par­adise, just west of Con­cow, and threat­ened Chico.

As au­thor­i­ties an­nounced that at least five peo­ple had died in Par­adise — all of them

burned in their ve­hi­cles while try­ing to flee, and none of them yet iden­ti­fied pub­licly — Franklin was one of many sur­vivors who told sto­ries of near-death.

Chris­tine Fitzsim­mons, 50, and her hus­band, 48-year-old David Fitzsim­mons, fled Par­adise, largely a com­mu­nity of re­tirees tucked in the trees at the bot­tom of a canyon, on Thurs­day. Two paved roads went in and out, which made

evac­u­at­ing dif­fi­cult.

By the time the Fitzsim­monses were mov­ing on a main road called Sky­way, flames raged on ei­ther side. 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.

“It’s pretty much over for us,” Chris­tine Fitzsim­mons said Fri­day. “We have no clothes. I don’t know this lady next to me, but I’m try­ing to.

She’s shar­ing her clothes with me.”

Thou­sands fled in their cars on Thurs­day, clog­ging the few routes out of town as the flames crept closer. Sher­iff ’s deputies try­ing to evac­u­ate trapped res­i­dents were them­selves sur­rounded by flames.

Spot fires popped up all over the foothills as the blaze grew out of con­trol. Fierce 40 mph winds drove the fire down the canyons and hills into town.

Many peo­ple shel­tered in their homes or pulled into paved park­ing lots once they re­al­ized there was no way out.

Eric Hen­son, sit­ting across from Fitzsim­mons at the Chico Elks Lodge, said he waited out the early hours of the Camp Fire in a Kmart park­ing lot un­til a Butte County bus picked him and about 100 oth­ers up.

He saw peo­ple run­ning along the side of the road. He

saw parked cars. He saw it all go up in flames.

“I was just glad to get out,” Hen­son, 45, said. “Just gotta stay calm.”

The fire was any­thing but calm when it came through Feather River Canyon in the early morn­ing. Dried out veg­e­ta­tion went up in flames quickly near Pulga and Con­cow, two un­in­cor­po­rated com­mu­ni­ties near Par­adise.

On so­cial me­dia, fam­ily and friends begged for in­for­ma­tion on their loved ones liv­ing in Butte County, while of­fi­cials urged evac­uees to reg­is­ter them­selves as “safe and well” on a Red Cross web­site.

The Camp Fire had by Fri­day de­stroyed an es­ti­mated 2,000 struc­tures and forced 50,000 Butte County res­i­dents out of their homes. Two evac­u­a­tion cen­ters in Chico had hit ca­pac­ity.

Vol­un­teers handed out wa­ter,

pil­lows and blan­kets out to evac­uees, many of whom had left with noth­ing but their pets and the clothes on their backs.

In the park­ing lot of the Church of the Nazarene in Oroville, Franklin leaned against a red pickup truck. Her dogs — Lacey, Cammy and Sam­son — skit­tered across the bed, their nails click­ing on the plas­tic. Some­how, she and the an­i­mals had made it out.

As the fire passed, the two strangers with her in the creek

scram­bled back to the main road, promis­ing to send help.

Then a fire­fighter came, pulling Franklin from the wa­ter and load­ing her and the dogs into the back of a rig. He dropped her at the evac­u­a­tion shel­ter. There, a man of­fered the back of his truck to her. The dogs could stay there, he said.

Franklin wrapped a blan­ket around her­self as a makeshift shirt at the shel­ter in Oroville, flan­nel pa­ja­mas sod­den with silt from the hours she spent in the creek.

“It’s been a bad year,” Franklin said, her hands shak­ing and eyes wa­ter­ing. “It’s been a bad, bad year. Ev­ery­thing I have is gone.”

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