Carole Wright

Escape From A 'Tidal Wave' Of Flames

Neighbors Scramble Together To Survive Camp Fire

Jenna Lane
December 17, 2018 - 12:00 am
Categories: 

PARADISE — On the morning of November 8, Jessee Ernest was on his way to work in Chico. Looking up toward the ridge where he was raised, he could see smoke filling the skies over Sawmill Peak.

From its fire lookout tower, people used to keep watch over Paradise, where his parents had lived for the last 44 of their 46 years of marriage. 

"They were packing, getting ready to go. Dad was putting a sprinkler on the roof and watering everything," Ernest said. "They were ready to leave if they got the evacuation order, and were going to leave anyway. I said, 'Come on down to my house, and we'll see you whenever you get there.'"

This was the start of the Camp Fire. It would go on to claim the lives of 85 people and destroy more than 18,000 buildings, making it the deadliest and most destructive in California's history. At one time, more than 1,000 people were listed as missing.

There's no official count of how many people were injured, however. Yet weeks after the fire, some of them, like Ernest's parents, face an uncertain future. 

While Ernest talked to his mom, the Camp Fire burned through roughly 20 football fields per minute, according to CalFire figures, and its speed was about to triple. It was charging south into Paradise as Ernest's parents drove north, on their only road out.

"The next phone call was a little more urgent. They weren't able to drive out," he said. "They had to find a different way out, and they didn't know what to do."

If Paradise sits on the flat palm of a ridge, Edgewood Lane runs south along one of its skinny fingers. Paul and Suzie Ernest's property slopes steeply to the east. Across the lane, their neighbor Travis Wright's slopes steeply to the west.

"They've been good neighbors," Wright said of the Ernests. "We bought property there in 2003. Paul used to watch our property, because people come down there and dump stuff. He was pretty much a watchdog for our property. He even tried to chase us off once when we were first building."

Jesee Ernest
When Ernest's parents made their U-turn at the flames, they headed for Wright's place. 

Ernest got through to his mom again who put her neighbor on the line. "So Travis gets on the phone and he says, 'We need an airlift. We need to get out. We can't get out.' It wasn't looking very good."

"You could just hear the rumble of it coming," Wright said. "It sounded like the rumbling of a jet engine. Plus, you could hear the explosions of the propane tanks."

A short distance down the lane, several cars were stuck. Of the six people in them, only Greg Woodcox would live to record what happened. 

"Oh my god. I'm so lucky to be alive," he says in his cell phone video. "I went down the canyon into a creek. It came over me. I thought I was going to die."

With Wright, Ernest's parents figured out another way.

"We got on our quads like, we have to get out of here. We have to go down the trails," said Wright.

On their all-terrain, four-wheelers, they rode about a mile to a rocky plateau where they thought the fire would have less fuel.

"We got off our quads, and we could just hear it coming," said Wright. "We got behind a large boulder. Paul covered Suzie, and he said this is going to be a bad one. We could just hear it coming and it hit the rock like a tidal wave. I kind of panicked because I heard Paul and Suzie screaming."

He ran. First to another rock, and then through the flames, losing his eyebrows and big patches of his hair, swallowing smoke. He swerved and dodged, going wherever the flames were not.

"I was trying to just keep a level head and try not to panic and just look at the fire and see what it wanted. What was it going to do," said Wright. "The only thing I could think of was go in to the already burnt section."

Wright called his wife, said his goodbyes. From her car, stuck in traffic evacuating Paradise, she captured screenshots of his phone's location — whether for rescue or recovery, she could not know. He stood on the bald, blackened bluff and took a 360-degree video. It's almost entirely black — at 11:00 in the morning — except for some orange flames clinging to a few of the blackened trees. And at the end, behind the shadow of a boulder, are the silhouettes of Paul and Suzie Ernest.

"They were kind of quiet," said Wright. "There was no more screaming, so I was like, 'Oh no.'"

He stopped recording, afraid of what he would find. But they were alive.

"I knew (Paul) was bad because when I tried to help him up, I grabbed his hand and his skin did slide off, so I was like, 'Oh geez, buddy, you're not good.' I could see Suzie was pretty bad too, 'cause I could see her feet. They were all black, and I wondered where her shoes were," said Wright

Her shoes had melted off. Above Paul's leather boots, his shin bones were exposed. To get help, Wright left them and hopped on to his quad, which had not burned, and started back up the hill. 

Ernest had been trying to get through to Wright for hours. Finally, "He answered his phone, and he told me what happened," Ernest said. 

"He said, 'Your mom and dad got burned really bad. It was bad The fire went over us and they were screaming and I was getting burned but they got burned really bad. We got them into a fire truck and I don't know where they're going," Ernest recalled. 

This is the first in a series of four reports by KCBS Radio reporter Jenna Lane.