One couples escape from the Camp Fires flames became a “happy band of vagrants” as their motorhome became a rescue vehicle for several people caught up in the chaos as hundreds of residents fled Paradise.
Jane Latham and Ed Van Der Linden found themselves rescuing people off the road Thursday morning as they tried to get away from the blaze as it bore down on Paradise.
Camp Fire: Evacuations ordered for edge of Chico; blaze nearly quadrupled in size overnight
Van Der Linden said he was getting ready to make a plate of eggs for breakfast when they got the call to evacuate from their home at an RV park on Clark Road in Paradise.
They grabbed their cat, Babou, a few supplies and Van Der Linden got behind the wheel of their motorhome. Jane Latham followed him in her car.
The Camp Fire initially started out as a report of a 15-acre fire, but quickly grew to several thousand acres, as it churned through dry brush and trees, pushed by high winds. By Thursday night, the wildfire had enlarged to 20,000 acres and was still growing.
The couple drove through streets packed with vehicles fleeing in front of the flames. Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said the fire had likely destroyed up to a thousand homes or more and fatalities were likely.
Residents fleeing the fire described panic and chaos as the few roads out of Paradise were jammed with cars and trucks.
“There was major gridlock. What would normally take 25 minutes took two-and-a-half hours,” Latham said.
As they drove down Clark Road in bumper-to-bumper traffic, they saw a man walking along the road with his dog and carrying luggage.
A woman directing traffic ran up to the motorhome and asked Van Der Linden if he could give the man and his dog a ride out of town.
They stopped at the VFW hall in town thinking they were safe, but someone told them they needed to keep moving as the fire was still coming. As they were leaving, another man ran up to them and asked if they could take two more elderly residents, he said.
The two had recently been rescued from their home, which was surrounded by flames, Van Der Linden said.
The couple had trouble walking, so Van Der Linden and the other man carried them into the motorhome, he said.
Latham said she only got their first names — Boris, who was 102 years old, and Jackie, who was 92, she said.
“Once I had the happy band of vagrants in the RV, the young man who was their savior stopped traffic so we could get back out,” Van Der Linden said.
On their way down the hill out of Paradise to Chico, they saw destruction and fire all around them, Latham said. They had to drive around utility poles that had burned and fallen into the roadway, they said.
“As we were coming down the hill I could not believe it. Everything on both sides of the road was on fire,” Latham said.
Eventually the whole troupe made it to Chico and camped Thursday afternoon in the Chico Mall parking lot with numerous others who had fled.
The evacuees milled around their vehicles, which were filled with what they could grab before leaving their homes behind. Some said they felt sure their homes were lost in the flames. But they grabbed photos, clothes and a few other supplies before joining the rush of residents leaving town.
Using another evacuees phone, the man with the dog called his father, who drove to the mall and picked him up.
Latham said her cell phone died and they had trouble reaching Boris and Jackies daughter. Eventually they flagged down a mall security guard who reached the couples daughter, who was able to come and retrieve her parents.
Latham and Van Der Linden said they had been through emergencies before, but nothing like the Camp Fire evacuation.
“You know whats weird? Ive never been in a situation like this. If it wasnt so scary, it would have been beautiful,” she said.
Per Ghilarducci, due to wildfires around the state 105,000 people have been evacuated in Southern California. 52,000 have been evacuated in northern California, predominantly due to the Camp Fire.
The wildfires have brought in local firefighters, totaling 1,860, to provide mutual aid up and down California and hundreds of law enforcement officers helping with security, evacuations, and any other necessary operations.
Were not just responding to whats in front of us but also contemplating what the next 24 and 48 hours are going to look like, said Ghillarducci.
Mark Ghilarducci, Director of the Californias Office of Emergency Services on the state-wide Red Flag Warning.
Were seeing it literally from border to border, which is making our job obviously much harder, he said.
The fire that broke out in Butte County has been an extremely challenging fire that resulted in significant and catastrophic for that community, the community of Paradise specifically just outside of Chico, said Ghilarducci.
Per Major General Dave Baldwin of the California National Guard, there are 185 personnel on duty providing support to the Camp Fire, some flying manned and unmanned aircrafts.
According to the Major General, the rest of the National Guard is on alert and prepared to deploy if necessary.
CAL FIRE Director Ken Pimlott says are critical and hundreds of resources are in the area, and every available aircraft is signed and responding. However, high winds and visibility can hinder their ability to use those resources.
Mark Ghilarducci, Director of the Californias Office of Emergency Services says there have been injuries and loss of life in the California wildfires. However, numbers are still being accounted for as officials work with local authorities.
Ghilarducci adds that the magnitude of this situation is heartbreaking and adds that there is a state wide Red Flag warning.
Evacuations have been ordered for the edges Chico, which is about 15 miles from a town where thousands of buildings were destroyed by the fast-moving Camp Fire, which grew to 70,000 acres overnight.
Capt. Scott McLean of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection says flames from the blaze that devastated the town of Paradise had reached the eastern side of Chico, a city of about 90,000 people. The fire is only currently five percent contained.
Authorities have said that at least two firefighters and multiple residents were injured in Paradise. McLean said Friday morning that he had no immediate update on injuries.
The Butte County Sheriffs Office says an evacuation ordered was issued Friday for the small communities of Stirling City and Inskip, north of Paradise, where thousands of homes were destroyed.
Cal Fire Capt. Bill Murphy says winds have calmed down in the valley but that there are “shifting, erratic winds” with speeds of up to 45 miles per hour (72 kph) along ridge tops.
The blaze that started Thursday morning east of Paradise and decimated the town also spread to the west.
Operational briefing for #CampFire underway at Butte County Fairgrounds. Objetives are to keep it East of Hwy 99 to Durham Dayton Hwy to Oroville Chico Hwy to Estates Dr. West of Hwy 70. Keep it South of Cohasset Dr. & North of Hwy 149. Concern: Red Flag warning @ABC10 pic.twitter.com/HqkVhkOqPj
All public schools are closed in Butte County today due to the fire, the Butte County Office Education announced. Chico State University via Twitter said its campus is safe and not under evacuation at this time. The campus is closed today and events scheduled for the weekend have been canceled.
Harrowing tales of escape and heroic rescues emerged from Paradise, where the entire community of 27,000 was ordered to evacuate. Witnesses reported seeing homes, supermarkets, businesses, restaurants, schools and a retirement home up in flames.
“Pretty much the community of Paradise is destroyed, its that kind of devastation,” said Cal Fire Capt. Scott McLean late Thursday. “The wind that was predicted came and just wiped it out.”