A battle to stay alive inside California's deadliest wildfire
PULGA — Before there was a spark, there was the wind.
On the morning of Nov. 8, as the sun rose over the isolated mountains in the Sierra Nevada, gale-force winds tore through the canyon. A fire outpost on the Feather River recorded blasts of 52 mph — a bad omen in a national forest that hadn't had a satisfying rain since May.
From his station bunk at the head of Jarbo Gap, Capt. Matt McKenzie of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection woke to the sound of pine needles pelting the roof.
At 6:15 a.m., a PG&E high-voltage line near the Poe Dam generating station six miles away malfunctioned. A report of fire came at 6:29.
Fifteen minutes later, McKenzie stood at the dam looking helplessly across the river canyon at a 10-acre fire on the rock slope above. He had no way to reach it. Its unpaved access route, Camp Creek Road, clung to the mountain so precariously that rock slides threatened to erase it.
The last time he put a heavy wildland engine on the crumbling grade, it took an hour to creep a mile, mirrors folded in, a man walking beside each wheel to watch for collapse. It would be a death sentence to send a crew out there in a fire.
California's professional wildfire strike forces make a regular practice of killing small grass fires — stomping thousands into anonymity each year. But this one was being lashed by a canyon vortex locals call the Jarbo wind.
McKenzie understood the immense capability of this little fire. It was the disaster he had trained for.
'This has got potential for a major incident,' he radioed. 'Still working on access.'
He called for an evacuation of the nearby community of Pulga and ordered a slew of engines, water tankers, bulldozers and strike teams.
The wind was faster. Already, it lofted a blizzard of embers toward nearby towns. McKenzie appealed for 'early up' of the helicopters and air tankers that could attack the fire from above. He was told he'd have to wait.
Cal Fire planes don't fly before light or if the wind is too fierce, and the time and weather conspired with the growing fire on Camp Creek Road. People were trapped and dying in the mountain enclave of Concow and homes were burning at the top of the ridge in Paradise before a fleet of helicopters and tankers could lift off.
By sunset, the fire had swept 19 miles over an entire mountain, surprising, trapping, terrifying and killing — the most destructive and deadliest in California history. Concow and the city of Paradise are largely gone, adjoining mountain towns devastated.
Eight days into the search, the death toll is 77 and rising. Hundreds remain missing; roughly 50,000 residents are displaced, scattered to relatives' spare rooms, motels and a Walmart parking lot turned refugee campground.
Survivors, emergency radio recordings and accounts by officials depict the chaos of that nightmare: a staggered evacuation plan that fell tragically short, residents with no warning to get out, and gridlocked evacuation routes that became fire traps, forcing hundreds to try to outrun the fire on foot.
The fire moved so fast — faster than emergency officials grasped, faster than evacuation orders could be acted on — consuming entire neighborhoods before people could flee.
7:40 a.m.: 'We've got structures already burning down here.'
Susanne and Gilbert Orr were eating breakfast when they saw flames outside their kitchen window. Gilbert, 71, ran out with a rake and a hose, 'but there were little fires everywhere,' said Susanne, 68. 'Everywhere.'
The couple lived in Concow, a small mountain community of homesteaders, retirees and marijuana growers a little more than five miles upslope from where the fire began. Within an hour of McKenzie's initial assessment, embers were battering the town. Four minutes after that, a home was ablaze. A minute later came orders to evacuate. More homes caught fire.
The Orrs piled into their old Trans Am with their dog Duke. As they made their escape, they fended off sparks that blew in through the car's broken window.
8:07 a.m.: 'They're trapped.'
A fallen tree blocked Hoffman Road, Concow's main escape route. It trapped a state fire crew and 20 residents.
McKenzie radioed instructions for the fleeing villagers to seek the relative safety of a park. Out of desperation, some plunged into a creek feeding the Concow Reservoir. A fire captain and his crew deployed their emergency shelters to shield civilians as the heat blast rolled in. 'We might have injuries,' a firefighter radioed, and an advance call went out for medics.
When it passed, firefighters radioed they were coming out with three people who had burns over half their bodies. A 90-year-old man was pulled from the water with hypothermia. At least eight people were killed.