“The smell of the smoke and realizing the smoke was a lot closer than I thought and then seeing flames up to my knees. … I lost it,” she said.
More than 2,200 firefighters are battling the flames and by late Thursday, the Camp Fire remains completely uncontained, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).
The wildfire has spread from rural to populated areas, going from Pulga to Concow and destroying an unknown amount of homes in Paradise, a town of 26,000 people about 85 miles north of Sacramento.
The extent of the destruction is still unknown as firefighters have not been able to access Paradise to assess the damage, Butte County Fire Battalion Chief Bill Reid told reporters Thursday.
A red flag warning is in effect through Friday morning, meaning that firefighters face high winds and low humidity that help spread the wildfire. Authorities fear the fire, fueled by winds, would reach the city of Chico — a city of 90,000 people where many Butte County families already have evacuated to shelters.
A shelter at the Neighborhood Church in Chico was full Thursday night and authorities were directing people to the Oroville Nazarene Church and the Butte County Fairgrounds.
Hoping to just get out
Clunies-Ross stayed behind to gather essentials not realizing how quickly danger was approaching, she says.
Her front lawn was on fire in about 30 minutes and she could not make it to her car.
Then, a man she had never seen before in her hometown of Paradise, California, appeared. He started putting out the fire and yelled at her to get back inside, she says. When she came back out he was gone and so was the fire.
“Had he not put out that fire, I would not have made it to the car,” she said.
But she was still a long distance from safety.
She drove under a golden-red sky to the main road that runs through Paradise. Already cars were bumper to bumper, she says. On the side of the road, trees were catching on fire and falling over.
“I’m on the phone crying, talking to my husband, just hoping I can get out of there,” she said.
Chuck Kambourian’s wife was about to drive their children to school when they got caught by the fire.
His wife was trying the four roads that lead out of Paradise. One of them was on fire, and some cars were driving through it, but she didn’t want to chance it with the children in the car, he said. Another one was also up in flames, and the other led in the direction of the wildfire.
Finally, she made it out and the family reunited in Chico.
“There was a big, giant wall of fire on the side of the car,” Kambourian said of his wife’s evacuation. “She was finally able to get through there and I think they closed it right before she got out.”
Kambourian said he started getting text messages from his church group on Thursday morning saying a fire had broken out in his hometown of Paradise. He was about 30 minutes away in Chico, where he works as a pharmacist.
He immediately started driving back to find his wife and three children. But the roads were blocked, so he had to wait on a road outside of town.