PARADISE, Calif. -- It’s the terror, the sheer terror of being stuck in a vehicle in bumper to bumper traffic with flames closing in and nowhere to go that haunts them most.
On the main road that locals affectionately called “the Skyway to Paradise,” many of those trapped in the nerve-wracking slow-motion evacuation Thursday morning said their goodbyes, whispered their prayers and wondered, is this the end?
“I thought, this must be what hell’s going to be,” said 87-year-old Beverly Fillmore, who drove out of Paradise with her 91-year-old husband, Jim.
“We were going to be cremated when we die, but I thought, this is it, I’m going to be cremated right now. This is when I die.”
The inferno has claimed at least 29 people as of Sunday -- seven in vehicles, another just outside one -- as the Camp Fire roared to life Thursday morning, decimating this town of 27,000 people just east of Chico in a wildfire that has become the most destructive in California history.
More than ever, it seems, those trapped by wildfires aren’t just the stubborn few who refuse to evacuate. California wildfires are increasingly wicked fast -- with year-round fire season colliding with late-autumn near-hurricane strength winds -- giving people little time to think straight, much less escape.
The identities of the ones who died in Paradise and exactly how they died are still unknown. But those who barely made it out alive tell stories of paralyzing fear and harrowing panic, of trust, of love, of loyalty.
Richard and Zetta Gore abandoned their vehicle and, with the fire bearing down, decided to slide down a deep canyon, clinging to bushes, and hike out about seven miles to safety. Angie Van Blaricon and Jessie Smith, a school bus driver and teacher’s aide, hunkered down for seven hours with a 7-year-old autistic boy in a Save Mart parking lot, while his mother feared he was dead. The Fillmores, married for 67 years and sure the end had come, ran out of gas -- but, thankfully, piled into their son's car and got away.
The photos alone of abandoned, incinerated vehicles strewn across Skyway give a sense of the chaos that preceded them. In many ways, they look like scenes from the town of Oroville just a year-and-a-half earlier. There was no fire then, but people fled fearing that a damaged Oroville Dam spillway could unleash a wall of water into nearby towns. It forced residents into an epic traffic jam with the threat of being overrun at any minute.
The dam never broke, but on Thursday -- with fire, not water -- that nightmare came true.
Richard and Zetta Gore stood on a rock outcropping at Bille Park, on the west side of Paradise, overlooking the deep canyon below. The wind shifted and the flames were closing in, as they looked into the ravine.
“I said, ‘Zetta, it’s time,’” Richard said. “We both prayed together and asked for God’s protection and took off.”
“This was the moment we knew it was do or die,” Zetta said.
Minutes earlier, they had been stuck in the interminable traffic on Oliver Road, just a couple blocks from their Paradise home. They hadn’t moved for a half hour. Cars sped along the shoulder. People ran by with bandanas on their faces. One man said he had a gun -- and although he confided in the Gores that he had fled without ammunition -- he was ready to threaten anyone who tried to steal his vehicle.
“We were sitting ducks to be burned in our vehicles and if I was going to die in a forest fire,” Richard Gore said, “I would rather die with my wife, trying to get away, than sitting in a vehicle dying.”
They headed to an overlook at Bille Park. As the flames came within 400 feet, they called their 32-year-old son in Ukiah.
“Zach, this is it. We’re going to make a run for it on foot,” Gore said. “This could be the last time we ever talk to you.”
Into the deep ravine they went, each holding bags with lap blankets and water bottles they could douse if the fire overcame them. They grabbed for vines and bushes as they slid. A family of deer and turkeys cobbled by.
The couple have been married 39 years. They met when they were teenagers working at a summer camp in Southern California. For years, they volunteered for the Riverside County fire department.
They made it to the bottom of the canyon, waded through the creek, then followed the dirt road for five miles before they hitched a ride out.
“When you’re contemplating death, you say, ‘am I ready to die?” Zetta said.
A peace had come over the couple as they descended the cliff. “We both were ready to die,” Richard said, “but we were not going to die without putting up a fight.”
UNSUNG HEROES ON THE BUS
The fire started at the most chaotic time of day for school bus drivers -- just as they were dropping off students at school. When the Camp Fire roared into town, Paradise Unified School District transportation director Rubina Hartwig couldn’t reach some of the bus drivers because the radio system was undergoing maintenance.
She was frantic when she couldn't contact Angie Van Blaricon, who along with aide Jessie Smith, was driving the mini school bus that normally carries 12 children with special needs.
“I started worrying right away. Where are they? What are they doing?” Hartwig said. “I didn’t know if her bus was full. I didn’t know if her bus was empty.”
She also didn't know whether most parents had picked up their special needs children from Van Blaricon’s bus at Ponderosa Elementary -- or that Bethann and Joseph Jauron were stopped at road blocks from reaching the school to get their 7-year-old son, Liam, who is autistic.
“Please, you have to let me get my son!” she pleaded with an officer at a blockade. “He’s on the spectrum. He needs his mommy.”
Liam's mom raced back home and received a call from Jessie, the teacher’s aide.
“Bethann, I’ve got him. I promise you I won’t let anything happen. I promise,” Jessie told her. “Then the phone lines went dead and the power went out.”
Ponderosa Elementary was burning. But Van Blaricon had moved the minibus to a safer spot at a Save Mart parking lot. Still, for another several hours, they couldn’t be reached.
“We knew that everything was burning around them and initially I thought the worst,” Hartwig said.
Liam's parents wouldn’t find out until later that firefighters were protecting the mini school bus and others stranded in the Save Mart parking lot, or that Van Blaricon and Smith were keeping Liam entertained with graham crackers and stories.
“Our little guy, our special needs boy, was happy as could be, keeping us all in high spirits,” Van Blaricon, 74, said.
It was until 6 p.m. that Liam and his guardians were united with his mother. “I held both of them and kissed them and thanked God for them,” Jauron said.
VIEW FROM A DEAD END
On Edgewood Lane, Gabriel Fallon was trying to save his parents' house and barn and 14 horses, when four vehicles drove by, their drivers in a panic: A woman and a teenage boy was inside one. An elderly couple in separate cars following each other were in the others.
Is this a way out? drivers would ask him, one after another.
“No,” he would say, “it’s a dead end.”
He didn’t know what happened to them. He didn’t know if they escaped. But on Saturday, a half dozen vehicles were smoldering carcasses on the end of Edgewood Lane. Three of them were touching, as though they had collided. Who can know what really happened in those final moments of fear when there’s no one left to tell the story?
Fallon saw the coroner arrive, but he didn’t know how many bodies were retrieved. Authorities would only say that four people had died in their vehicles, some on Edgewood Lane. Another was found outside a car, presumably trying to run away.
The fire just moved so fast, Fallon said.
“Everyone started grabbing stuff and trying to go,” he said, “but it was almost too late already.”
The Fillmores, the elderly couple stuck on Skyway who were certain they would perish, passed Edgewood Lane as they escaped. When they ran out of gas, their son was nearby and picked them up.
“You couldn’t see where you were. All you could see was flames,” she said.
They finally made it out, passing the “Welcome to Paradise” sign. It was burning.
“I don’t ever want to see a tree again, ever. I know it’s going to catch on fire,” Beverly Fillmore said. “We’re not going to rebuild in Paradise.”