Thousands Fled Paradise Ahead of Camp Fire; Say It Was ‘Like the Gates of Hell Opened Up’

The burned-out wrecks of abandoned cars lining the roads out of this once-picturesque mountain town bear silent witness to residents’ frantic efforts escape the hellish advance of the raging Camp Fire.

Tires melted down to their steel belts. Windows blown out. Paint evaporated. Rims liquified and then solidified after running down the pavement. Fire leaping across the road.

“It just looked like Dante’s Inferno,” said evacuee John Yates, 65. “Black and red was all you could see.”

Yates and thousands of other Paradise residents fled the flames on Thursday as the Camp Fire raged through town. As true darkness fell – smoke had clogged the air all afternoon – residents jammed onto winding, hilly two-lane roads. Witnesses reported blackout conditions, the smoke too thick to see through. Drivers collided, went off embankments, slammed into signs and trees as embers rained down upon them, setting trees and houses and cars alight.

“It looked like the gates of hell opened up, I swear,” said evacuee James Brown.

At east 23 people have died in the fire, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said late Saturday night. At least five of the victims were found in cars. Others were found in houses. Dozens of people remain missing, and firefighters and deputies on Saturday were searching property-by-property for additional victims.

The still-burning Camp Fire is the most destructive in California history, torching 6,453 homes and burning more than 90,000 acres. About 52,000 residents have been evacuated from the fire, which is 5 percent contained. The cause remains under investigation.

Paradise residents who escaped shudder to think at the fate that nearly befell them and trade stories of friends who abandoned their cars to race through the fire on foot, their shoes melting on the hot pavement. Many residents say they evacuated on their own because they didn’t receive any warning the fire was racing through town.

“I went into panic mode,” said Yates, who left behind most of his valuable, although he saved the ashes of his parents and son. “I got myself out of there.”

Starting next year, a new statewide emergency-alert system will counties to automatically enroll residents in county-operated emergency notification systems using the phone numbers attached to their utility accounts. The current alert system primarily uses landlines but gives residents the option to add other numbers, leaving the majority of people out of the loop.

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Source: USA Today