‘This fire was outrunning us before we even knew we were in a race.’ Butte sheriff reflects on Camp Fire
The sun had not yet crested the Sierra Nevada range in Butte County on Nov. 8 when a Cal Fire radio channel crackled to life.
A fire was burning under high-voltage power lines near the Poe Dam, part of a hydroelectric network owned by PG&E along the Feather River in Northern California.
At 6:46 a.m., a firefighter who was one of the first to spot the blaze radioed that it was small: “Probably 10 acres from what I can see,” he said. Pushed by wind gusts topping 50 mph, it tore across the rugged, brushy Plumas National Forest. The fire grew to thousands of acres within hours.
Flames ate through the secluded communities of Pulga and Concow before reaching the larger towns of Paradise and Magalia. By the end of the day, it was an inferno that would be seared into record books as the Camp Fire: California’s most destructive and deadliest wildfire.
Now nearly contained, it has killed at least 85 people and destroyed more than 13,000 homes. More than 50,000 people were evacuated in a twelve-hour stretch of terror, bravery, confusion and turmoil that overwhelmed a public-safety plan designed for a fire that would gradually progress across the pine-covered communities. The Camp Fire moved at speeds no one – not residents, firefighters nor public officials – could handle.
Brandon Hill was six miles away in Concow when the fire started, driving four of his kids to school. At around 7 a.m., he saw a plume of smoke billowing up from the northeast. He wasn’t alarmed.
Every summer, red Cal Fire engines race to stomp out fires in the river canyon on Concow’s eastern edge. Hill, 38, said he’s seen a dozen fires there the last decade.
“It looked like it was way off in the canyon, like what’s happened 100 times before,” Hill said.
He drove only a few miles when he realized the fire had raged through miles of trees and brush and was barreling toward Camelot, his Concow subdivision. His wife, Sara, was still there with their 8-year-old son, Nathan.
“I literally hit my (emergency) brake and flipped a big old power turn in the middle of the highway,” he said. By the time he got back minutes later, his neighbors’ homes were burning. Embers flew sideways in the heavy winds “like the worst snowstorm you’ve ever been in,” he said.
Sara Hill was inside packing, oblivious of the threat.
“’What’s wrong?”’ Hill said she asked him when he blew through the door.
“I said, ‘We need to go now.’ She tried to grab more things, and I screamed at her at the top of my lungs. I still won’t forgive myself how I talked to my wife. God, I told her to ‘Get the f--- in the truck because it is here. It’s already here.’”
Three roads out
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea was sipping coffee at home in Chico when the fire started. His wife, a sheriff’s dispatcher, called to tell him Pulga, 10 miles from Paradise, was burning.
Honea wasn’t yet concerned Paradise was at risk.
But by 7:45, about 45 minutes after Hill saw the plume, firefighters were reporting much of Concow, three miles west of Pulga toward Paradise, was on fire, according to audio files archived online and reviewed by The Sacramento Bee. Officials began evacuating eastern Paradise.
Honea headed up Skyway, the main road between Paradise and Chico. The traffic heading toward Chico was crawling but the lanes going into Paradise were empty. He grabbed his flashlight and directed drivers to use the inbound lanes as well.
Later, California Highway Patrol officer Logan Callahan discovered downed power lines and a tree had fallen across two of Skyway’s lanes, blocking traffic. Flames closed in on both sides of the road as motorists sat trapped. Escape routes became so congested first responders couldn’t get into town.
“Turn around!” a firefighter shouted over his radio near Concow Road and Highway 70, the route out of mountain towns east of Paradise, at 7:54 a.m.
“They’re just plugging up the roadway, and making it hard for first responders to get through,” he yelled.
Around the time Honea was headed up Skyway, Butte County Supervisor Doug Teeter received an alert on his cell phone in Paradise telling him an evacuation order was underway.
Like the Hill family in Concow, Teeter was acquainted with wildfire, having evacuated his home in the eastern side of town at least three times. Teeter’s wife Pamela had just dropped their two kids at school. Faced with leaving again, the couple gathered important belongings – tax records, computers, clothes – and took separate cars. Pamela Teeter left first to get the children, heading down Pearson Road, a meandering two-lane route that cuts between Skyway and Pentz Road, two of only three arteries going south out of Paradise.
Teeter was a few minutes behind her — enough to make a difference with traffic. He found himself inching along, embers landing all around as he headed into a wooded canyon.
“That canyon’s a death trap,” Teeter thought.
A few miles away, CHP officer Nick Powell was ferrying three evacuees, two of them disabled, when a panicked driver smashed into his SUV hard enough the airbags popped.
Powell abandoned the SUV, loaded his passengers into passing vehicles and ran on foot, eventually hitching a ride to safety with firefighters, said Callahan, a fellow CHP officer.
Powell was just one of dozens of local emergency personnel who lost homes to the fires while they were frantically trying to save their neighbors’ lives, and who found themselves fighting for their own survival.
Stuck in the same traffic, Teeter ditched his car in a driveway and tried to make it home to get his motorcycle, but he was too late to get out. As the fire blew near, he crammed onto a mowed field about 300 yards wide with about 20 others.
The fire roared past.
Later, rescue workers would find the burned-out hulls of cars on nearby Edgewood Lane, bodies inside, aluminum rims melted onto the asphalt.
Infrastructure is burning
Unlike Teeter, Dorothy Burns, 94, never received an evacuation alert, she said.
Burns lived alone alone with her black miniature poodle, Smokey, in a mobile home in the Camelot subdivision not far from Hill.
She was getting dressed when her phone rang. It was a neighbor telling her she needed to evacuate. Another neighbor called with more urgency.
“He said, ‘You’ve got to get out right now. The fire is in the back yard,’” she said.
Butte County contracts with a private company, Florida-based OnSolve, for an opt-in emergency alert system called CodeRed that can call landlines, as well as send texts, emails and smartphone messages, according to county officials.
The county has held drives to get Butte residents to enroll in CodeRed. OnSolve said it made 75,000 phone calls to people in the path of the Camp Fire, and “tens of thousands of additional emails and text messages” on Nov. 8, according company spokesman Brian Lustig.
It’s unclear how many of those alerts went through. Multiple people interviewed by The Bee said they did not receive an alert.
The initial notification — aimed at 10,000 phone numbers — reached only about 60 percent of its intended recipients, said Troy Harper, an OnSolve general manager. Too many people were on the cellular network and it was overloaded by traffic, Harper said.
“Neighborhoods are burning, friends are calling friends,” Harper said. “Infrastructure is burning.”
After her neighbors’ warnings, Burns loaded Smokey into her Mazda.
“The wind was so strong, the embers were blowing horizontally,” Burns said. “I thought, ‘This is no place for me.’”
Driving through impenetrable smoke, she lost the road and went through a lawn before driving over a retaining wall. Her car became stuck on top of it.
Hill was heading out of Camelot with two neighbors in his Ford Focus when he saw Burns. He had already sent his wife and kids ahead, but had tried to save his home before realizing it was hopeless.
He jumped out to help.
“She must have weighed 90 pounds soaking wet,” said Hill, who stands nearly 6 feet tall and weighs 270 pounds. “I grabbed her by her purple puffy jacket, and I just lifted her up off that wall and put her down.”
The men loaded Burns and Smokey into the Focus and drove to Hill’s mother’s house nearby in Concow. There, Hill and about 12 neighbors spent the day using garden hoses to douse spot fires, wet handkerchiefs covering their faces to filter out the choking smoke. Hill cut fire lines with a tractor as embers pockmarked his shirt with burns.
Soon after, a man ran up, soaking wet. The drenched stranger said he and others jumped into nearby Concow Reservoir to escape flames. There were still people trapped on an island, including a 90-year-old man, he said.
Hill’s 14-year-old son, Daniel, grabbed an old canoe from a nearby workshop with some other people. They headed to the reservoir and paddled out to rescue the shivering survivors.
The 90-year-old, whom Brandon Hill knew only as Bruno, was in bad shape, he said.
“He had hypothermia bad. He was barely conscious, and he could barely communicate,” Hill said. “I didn’t have much hope for him.“
They stripped Bruno of his wet clothes and put him in a warm bath in Hill’s mom’s house. Hill said the man survived.
Across the ridge from Concow at Feather River Hospital on the eastern edge of Paradise, surgeon Ruth McLarty started her morning in the emergency room. She was finishing a gall bladder surgery when fire alarms howled.
Her patient was loaded into ambulance. McLarty headed down the hill in her car.
“Fire was coming all around us, and it was obvious we weren’t going to make it out,” she said.
Traffic wasn’t moving as the flames touched her doors. A woman whose car caught fire jumped in with her. McLarty called her 16-year-old daughter and started to pray.
“I’m sitting there imagining burning to death,” McLarty said. “And I’m going into this wide awake.”
A bulldozer rumbled past McLarty’s car just then and through the flames, clearing a path wide enough for her to turn around and head back to the hospital. There, she found 20 or so patients who hadn’t evacuated. They had been pushed outside on gurneys and in wheelchairs. When a hospital outbuilding caught fire, the group retreated to an asphalt helipad.
“We just watched everything burning,” McLarty said.
The main hospital building survived the fire, but 13 other buildings burned down or were severely damaged.
Teeter, the county supervisor, had made his way to the hospital by then, he said. He didn’t know if his wife and kids were safe.
He watched as sheriff’s deputies brought more people, many of them elderly, to the parking lot. Hospital workers brought bedside toilets outside.
“All the people in hospital gowns,” he said. “They’re confused. They’ve got pets. It was just insane.”
Send me an angel
Just up Pentz Road from the hospital, Sheila Craft had been up before sunrise, making sure backup generators would kick in if needed at Cypress Meadows, a skilled-nursing and rehabilitation home. Pacific Gas and Electric Co. had warned two days earlier that it might shut off the power that morning as a fire-prevention precaution.
The planned blackout didn’t occur. PG&E officials later said the weather conditions “didn’t meet the criteria.” The company has already been sued by several Paradise residents who blame faulty transmission lines for starting the fire. Cal Fire has yet to announce a cause.
A little after 7 a.m., Craft drove home to take her children to school. Like Hill, she saw smoke but paid little attention.
“We live in the mountains, so when we see a plume of smoke, we don’t think it’s imminent,” said Craft, Cypress Meadows’ director of admissions and marketing.
Before long, she realized flames were going to reach the nursing home. She went back. Nurses and assistants were bundling clothing, medicine and supplies for the 91 patients. Craft and others started making calls to find a place to take them.
“It was raining ash,” she said. “Charred bark was landing in our parking lot.”
Craft found a facility in Chico, Roseleaf Senior Care, with vacancies. She herded three patients into her Chevy Suburban — a stroke victim and two people with dementia — and headed out. It was not quite 10 a.m.
Joe Zarate, a Cypress Meadows maintenance worker, put four patients in his Ford F350 pickup. An amputee rode shotgun, a bed-bound patient lay in the back seat and two elderly women in wheelchairs were placed in the truck bed, along with a nurse. Following a sheriff’s van, Zarate’s truck crawled through flames and gridlock.
About a mile later, Zarate heard the women in the truck bed praying. He grabbed rosary beads hanging from his rear-view mirror and passed them back. Zarate’s truck approached a barricade of flames across Neal Road on the southwest edge of Paradise.
“Put it to the floor, baby. Let’s go,” said the amputee next to him. Zarate said he sped through, then turned to tell the woman laying in the back, who seemed to have passed out at one point, they’d made it.
She spoke her first words of the morning: “I knew we would,” he recalls her saying.
In her Chevy Suburban, Craft was panicking in a Safeway parking lot. The SUV had a flat tire. She asked a man in a PG&E truck to help her fix it. He said he couldn’t.
Her husband Jeremy was on the phone, in tears, “asking God to send me an angel,” she said. Moments later, a Safeway employee named Nate Reich pulled up in his Ford sedan. He loaded everyone into his car.
They made it to Chico.
30 extinguishers and a hose
Fire planning paid off at the Paradise Alliance Church, designated by town officials as one of two assembly points to shelter in place. During the Camp Fire, it became a last stand.
Dave Roberts, the head of maintenance at the church for 10 years, showed up at the facility on Clark Road around 7:30 a.m. He could see smoke in the distance, but began setting up tables for a fundraiser the church was hosting that night for young pregnant women.
A half hour later, flames were behind the church, he said.
Roberts and others grabbed hoses and began spraying spot fires. A group of teachers from a neighboring middle school joined in, as a mobile home behind the church went up in flames.
Tim Bolin, the church pastor, drove up and told Roberts to lock the church and evacuate. Roberts started to leave, but Clark Road was gridlocked. He went back to the church, where about 100 people were seeking refuge in the large open space between the pines. Many in the lot were elderly, including a parishioner who had just turned 100. One woman was barefoot, with a nearly empty oxygen tank, he said.
Embers hit the church lawn. Roberts and others rolled out a line of sprinklers. The water pressure began to fade, so Roberts passed out 30 fire extinguishers, and they began spraying the foamy retardant.
“It was like fighting a fire with a squirt gun,” he said.
Two redwood trees and a juniper burst into flames.
“I remember just praying, ‘God, I can’t do anymore; it’s up to you,’” Roberts said.
A fire truck pulled up and the crew “extinguished everything,” Roberts said. But there was no place to go. The survivors stayed in the field as others joined. Hours passed. Propane tanks kept exploding in the distance.
Around 4:45 p.m. a fire crew arrived to take the group out. Their caravan arrived safely at Butte College in Oroville a few minutes after 5 p.m.
A lost race
“The Ridge,” as locals call the Paradise area, has been through big fires before.
In 2008, two fires burned down more than 200 buildings. After those fires, a Butte County grand jury issued a report finding the region’s roads weren’t adequate for a fast evacuation.
“Additional evacuation routes are necessary,” the grand jury wrote. “All roads out of Paradise and the Upper Ridge, with the exception of Skyway below Paradise, have significant constraints, limiting their use as evacuation routes during a major event.”
The town responded with a new evacuation system. Paradise, population 27,000, was divided into zones, which would be evacuated as needed to keep roads clear. In 2016, officials turned all four lanes of traffic on Skyway to one-way traffic during the morning rush hour to practice a mass evacuation.
The area added other fire safety measures. Crews cut fire breaks through timber and brush to protect portions of Concow, home to about 800. Officials created safety zones in Paradise such as the Alliance church where people could shelter in place, and determined staging areas for fire personnel and rescue workers.
As the Camp Fire drew near, radio dispatches show evacuation orders were being issued every few minutes according to plan. But quickly the orders covered larger and larger swaths of Paradise. Finally, at 9:03 a.m., about two-and-a-half hours after the fire started 12 miles away, the call went out to empty out the entire town.
“Mandatory evacuations, all of Paradise,” an unidentified fire battalion chief said in radio transmissions.
As Concow burned and Paradise evacuated, Honea, the sheriff, was directing traffic on Skyway. His radio brought troubling news. His deputies were calling for fire engines and begging for planes to drop retardant.
“The response is, ‘There are no more resources,’” Honea recalled. “I honestly believed that we were going to have dead law enforcement officers.”
Honea spotted his daughter, Kassidy Honea, 23, a Paradise police officer, directing traffic on the other side of Skyway. A call came in: Deputies and residents were trapped in a hardware store. The sheriff had to go, wondering if he would see her again.
“I gave her a hug and told her ‘bye’ and off I went,” Honea said.
Honea said he hasn’t looked into the events of Nov. 8 deeply enough to know if the zone system was the right way to evacuate Paradise, or if anything could have prepared the town for a fire moving as quickly as this blaze. But he believes a single, mass evacuation probably would have created “even more pandemonium.
“The rapid rate of progression of the fire outpaced the plan,” he said. “This fire was outrunning us before we realized we were in a race.”
Frozen in fear
Hill and his band of survivors had a restless night in Concow. They tried to sleep in shifts on spare beds, couches and bare floors so there was always someone awake to watch for spot fires.
“All night long people were waking each other up because there were flare-ups behind my mom’s house in the woods,” he said.
The next morning, Hill took a chainsaw and went with another man to look around on an ATV. The man wanted to check on his godmother.
“He just knew she was there,” Hill said.
They sawed through downed trees and power poles blocking a road and found the woman, Stephanie Rowe, 75. She was frozen in the driver’s seat of her car, her hands clutching the steering wheel.
Hill thought she was dead.
“I will never forget the look on her face when I opened up the door,” Hill said. “She kind of tilted her head to the side, completely expressionless with blank eyes, and just stared at us.”
The men ran into a sheriff’s deputy who escorted Rowe to safety. The deputy told Hill he should leave what had now become the Camp Fire evacuation area, or he could face arrest.
Hill said he doesn’t hold any hard feelings for the threat. He knows the deputy had a rough 24 hours.
He did, too.
This story has been updated on Nov. 25 to reflect a correction in the death toll of the Camp Fire. Authorities earlier erroneously reported the number of fatalities as 87. The correct number as of Nov. 25 is 85.