Survivors recall harrowing escapes from firestorm in Butte County
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
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.”