Camp Fire overtakes fleeing residents, killing nine, and destroys most of Paradise
‘I had no idea it could be that fast,’ survivor of blaze says
After a night of chaos and fear, the once-raging Camp Fire in Butte County settled down Friday as winds calmed.
But the new day brought gruesome discoveries.
Five as yet unidentified fire victims were found burned in the husks of their cars near Edgewood Lane, a narrow deadend street in Paradise. Cars there were wrapped in law enforcement crime scene tape Friday, with their wheels melted into the asphalt and sagging electrical wires hanging overhead.
All down the one-mile length of Edgewood, former homes and trailers smoldered in ruins.
The residents apparently were trapped or overtaken by the speeding fire while trying to evacuate during a frantic few hours Thursday night when roads became choked and some residents abandoned gridlocked cars to flee on foot.
“The preliminary investigation revealed that the victims were located in vehicles that were overcome by the Camp Fire,” the sheriff said in a statement. “Due to the burn injuries, identification could not be immediately made.“
One resident of the street, who barely escaped, said her family’s car and those of neigh-
bors’ were jammed “like sitting ducks” as the fire bore down through the black night.
Savannah Rauscher said she got a reverse 911 call ordering her to evacuate her Edgewood Lane home at 8:30 a.m. Outside, embers and dust were already flying.
“We saw a wall of fire,” she said. “Trees were glowing 50 yards away and it was probably moving like 10 yards every couple minutes. … It was moving so quickly and there’s cars as far as I can see. I had no idea it could be that fast.”
Feeling the heat from the flames, Rauscher’s husband pulled out of the line of cars, cutting into what would have been the oncoming traffic lane. “I thought, ‘We’re gonna die,’ and my husband said, ‘No, we’re not going to die like this.’ ”
She rolled the window down, waving and yelling, prompting other cars to follow suit. “When we got to Pearson (Road), nobody had any clue, it’s right there, it’s coming like a freight train.”
On Friday, she checked satellite images of the neighborhood and saw “a ball of fire” where their house once was.
Four more deaths were confirmed in Paradise on Friday afternoon by the Butte County Sheriff’s Office. A spokeswoman said she had no immediate details about those fatalities. Two firefighters were reported injured as well, and first responders were searching for more victims.
The department had received 35 missing persons reports as well as of Friday evening, spokeswoman Megan McMann said.
An estimated 80 percent of the town of Paradise was gone, wiped out by flames in one night, the town mayor said.
Fire officials have not disclosed a cause. However, PG&E submitted a report Thursday to the California Public Utilities Commission about an outage at a 115-kilovolt line on Pulga Road in Butte County at 6:15 a.m. that day, and noted that the site was near the Camp Fire.
In a public statement, PG&E wrote: “The cause of the Camp Fire has not yet been determined. PG&E has provided an initial electric incident report to the (PUC). The information provided in this report is preliminary and PG&E will fully cooperate with any investigations.”
The fire, which began about 6:30 a.m. Thursday, cut a large swath through the center of Paradise and nearby Magalia on Thursday night and early Friday before making a brief run toward Chico.
Fire officials said the latest count of 6,713 structures destroyed vaulted the blaze to first on the state’s list of most destructive fires. Before this fire, the most destructive fire was the Tubbs Fire, which burned more than 2,600 buildings in Sonoma, Napa and Lake counties in 2017, many of them in the city of Santa Rosa.
Paradise Mayor Jody Jones estimated “80 to 90 percent of the homes are gone.” She said most of the businesses on the town’s commercial corridors were also destroyed. Two of the three grocery stores burned to the ground.
Asked if she expected the death toll to rise, Jones said, “I think we have to be prepared for that. There were people who refused to leave.”
The six reported deaths put the Camp Fire among the 20 deadliest fires in modern California history, according to Cal Fire. The worst was the Griffith Fire in Los Angeles in 1933, when 29 died.
As of Friday morning, the fire had consumed 70,000 acres and remained largely uncontrolled.
The blaze continued to burn in the Jarbo Gap area Friday. Caltrans shut down Highway 99 south of Chico and north of the junction with Highway 149. But Cal Fire officials said dwindling winds slowed the fire’s movement and allowed firefighters a chance to establish fire lines and make assaults.
“Firefighters are taking advantage of the break in the wind to aggressively go after the fire,” Cal Fire spokeswoman Cheryl Buliavac said.
Wind speeds are expected to remain low through Saturday evening, but National Weather Service officials say they could kick up again Saturday night and continue through Monday, with gusts up to 30 mph, prompting the agency to issue a fire weather watch.
While Friday was largely calm, residents of Paradise described Thursday evening as something akin to hell on Earth. Mark Ghilarducci, California Office of Emergency Services director, on scene Friday, expressed awe at the devastation.
“The magnitude of the destruction we’re seeing is really unbelievable and heartbreaking,” Ghilarducci said.
The fire torched homes and businesses and burned down the Paradise welcome sign.
Alphonse Sperske was another of the lucky Edgewood residents to escape at the last minute.
His daughter, Ann Sperske, a Martinez resident, said her father lived at a senior community mobile home park near the only entrance and exit to Edgewood Lane, off of Pearson Road.
By the time he left his house by car, the house across the street was already on fire.
“There was no other way out, there’s no back road,” Sperske said. “He barely made it out.”
At the Oroville evacuation center on Friday, Gaynell McPhearson, 79, there with his wife, Carol, and two dogs, said he wasn’t sure about the fate of the house he had built on a ridge to watch the sun rise and set.
“The structure that I built may not be there, buy my home is still there,” he said. “My home is still there.”
At least five people died on Pearson Road, trapped in their cars while the Camp Fire descended on them. The charred remains of vehicles formed a ghostly image Friday. One resident who survived said the vehicles were jammed in traffic “like sitting ducks.”