Updated: ‘We’re not going to die like this’: Twenty-nine confirmed fatalities in California’s most destructive fire

After a night of chaos and fear, the fast-moving Camp Fire in Butte County settled down Friday as winds calmed.

But the new day brought gruesome discoveries and a grim new record. As of late Friday, officials said nine people had been killed, and more than 6,700 buildings – the vast majority of them homes – had been destroyed in Butte County, making the Camp Fire the most destructive blaze in state history. By Sunday, the tally of dead had risen to twenty-nine with the expectation more victims would be found — leaving it tied with the 1933 Griffith Fire as the state’s most deadly wildfire.

In five days, the fire has reached 111,000 acres. Fire containment is at 25 percent.

Four as yet unidentified fire victims were found burned in the husks of their cars near Edgewood Lane, a narrow dead-end street in Paradise, and a fifth body was found on the ground on Edgewood. Cars windows 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 victims 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 Butte County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement earlier in the day. “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 neighbors’ 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 going to 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.

Camp Fire in Butte County

Red circles on this live-updating map are actively burning areas, as detected by satellite. Orange circles have burned in the past 12 to 24 hours, and yellow circles have burned within the past 48 hours. Yellow areas represent the fire perimeter.
Source: National Interagency Fire Center

Four more deaths were confirmed in Paradise on Friday evening by the Butte County Sheriff’s Office. Three were found on the ground outside of residences, and one was found in a residence. The department said it had no further details about those fatalities. Three firefighters were reported injured as well, and first responders were searching for more victims.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said feared he would have to report more. “I fear it will be my duty to continue to update these figures,” he 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 Thursday night and early Friday before making a brief run toward Chico.

The unofficial initial count of 6,713 destroyed structures vaulted the blaze to first on the state’s list of most destructive fires. Of those, 6,453 were homes. That tops the Tubbs Fire that burned more than 5,600 buildings in Sonoma, Napa and Lake counties in 2017, including 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 puts the Camp Fire among the 20 deadliest fires in California modern history, according to Cal Fire. The worst was the Griffith Fire in Los Angeles in 1933, when 29 died.

After quadrupling in size to 70,000 acres on Friday morning, the fire jumped another 20,000 acres during the day and remains 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 miles per hour, 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. The Butte College police chief’s home was among those destroyed. In the nearby hamlet of Magalia, where residents were rousted an evacuated after midnight, little was left Friday but a heavy haze of smoke.

Honea addressed the difficulty in evacuating Magalia, saying at points deputies were going door to door telling people to evacuate.

“There were also times where we didn’t have time to do that,” he said.

Evacuation orders were issued through reverse 911, but some people on social media have reported not getting any warning as flames from the Camp Fire roared toward their homes.

Lorrie Ballard, whose in-laws live in Magalia, said they didn’t know they had to evacuate until they saw a red glow behind their house and the fire inching closer Thursday morning.

Steve and Annette Sawyer, 80, said they got a call warning of the possibility of evacuation but were never told to leave.

As the flames approached, the couple got in their car and turned south on Skyway, heading unknowingly toward the fire. When they ran into the flames two blocks from their house, they turned around and headed north, picking up a man and his dog whose car was low on gas, Ballard said. The couple used a logging road to get out of the area.

Active firefighting in Magalia was ongoing Friday and would be the focus going into Saturday, said Josh Bischof, operations branch director for CalFire.

From Edgewood Lane, Alphonse Sperske was another of the lucky 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.” she said.

For the latest updates on Northern California's wildfires, sign up for breaking news alerts here. To support coverage of breaking news and more, click here for a digital-only subscription.

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, but my home is still there,” he said. “My home is still there.”

This story was updated Nov. 12 at 7 a.m. to reflect new fatalities and the size of the fire.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee