OAKLAND (CBS SF) — The announcement Friday that five people had died in their vehicles as they attempted to flee the raging Camp Fire as it ripped through Paradise served as a bone-chilling flashback to the deadly 1991 Oakland Hills fire.
The fires were very similar. The began as small blazes that were whipped by strong northeast winds into a raging firestorms. Both spread with remarkable speed and the exodus of residents became a chaotic life-and-death struggle.
In Oakland, the firestorm destroyed 790 homes in its first hour. Residents began fleeing Hiller Highlands and surrounding homes, nine made the fateful decision to make their escape on eucalyptus-lined Charing Cross Road.
At an Oakland Hills switchback, authorities said a burning automobile fell from a ridge above Charing Cross and then a truck stalled beside it. Traffic was blocked. Nine would die.
On Thursday, the Butte County Sheriff’s Department announced that 5 bodies had been discovered in burned out vehicles on Edgewood Lane in Paradise.
“The preliminary investigation revealed that the victims were located in vehicles that were overcome by the Camp Fire,” the sheriff department said in a release. “Due to the burn injuries, identification could not be immediately made.”
Survivors have described a scene of chaos in that area as the flames bore down on the neighborhood. Residents described fleeing their homes and then getting stuck on gridlocked roads as flames approached, sparking explosions and toppling utility poles.
“Things started exploding,” said resident Gina Oviedo. “People started getting out of their vehicles and running.”
Fire surrounded the evacuation route, and drivers panicked. Some crashed and others left their vehicles by the roadside.
“It was just a wall of fire on each side of us, and we could hardly see the road in front of us,” police officer Mark Bass said.
A nurse called Rita Miller on Thursday morning, telling her she had to get her disabled mother, who lives a few blocks away, and flee Paradise immediately.
Miller jumped in her boyfriend’s rickety pickup truck, which was low on gas and equipped with a bad transmission. She instantly found herself stuck in gridlock.
“I was frantic,” she said.
After an hour of no movement, she abandoned the truck and decided to try her luck on foot. While walking, a stranger in the traffic jam rolled down her window and asked Miller if she needed help. Miller at first scoffed at the notion of getting back in a vehicle.
Then she reconsidered, thinking: “I’m really scared. This is terrifying. I can’t breathe. I can’t see, and maybe I should humble myself and get in this woman’s car.”
The stranger helped Miller pack up her mother and took them to safety in Chico.