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'It got darker and darker and darker.' Wildfire survivors detail harrowing escapes

Sacramento Bee logoSacramento Bee 11/16/2018 By Don Sweeney, The Sacramento Bee

Gallery by photo services

Nov. 15--Devastating wildfires across California have sent thousands fleeing for their lives, leaving many in evacuation shelters or makeshift camps scattered across the state.

Others never made it out at all, with 58 confirmed deaths and more than 100 still missing, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Here are stories from some of the survivors of the deadly Camp Fire in Northern California and Woolsey Fire in Southern California.

'Come over, come over!'

Dr. David Russell, a pediatrician at Feather River Hospital, found himself driving down a smoke-filled road Thursday as the Camp Fire roared toward the foothill town of Paradise, reported KCRA.

"It got darker and darker and darker and then started seeing more fire," Russell said, according to the station. "Not just patches, but fire and a burning house on my right, some fire not too far off on my left."

Stuck in traffic and running low on gas, Russell decided to abandon his vehicle. Then he spotted an ambulance on fire beside the road, reported KCRA.

"There was a patient in there that was calling me, 'Come over, come over! Get me out, get me out!' " Russell recalled, according to the station.

The patient, Heather Roebuck, who had earlier given birth at the hospital and couldn't walk, had almost given up hope of surviving, reported KTXL.

"I realized I'm not going to make it," Roebuck said, according to the station. "I told (my husband) on the phone, 'I'm really sorry' -- that I just loved him, and that wasn't going to be there with the kids."

Russell helped the paramedics carry the woman to a nearby home, which she and other survivors helped defend from the flames with garden hoses, reported KCRA.

"I accepted the fact that I was probably going to die and decided that I was going to do everything that I can to make sure some people lived or that I lived," said nurse Tamara Ferguson, who had been in the ambulance behind Roebuck's, reported Good Day Sacramento.

The homes on either side burned down but the one they had occupied survived thanks to their efforts, reported USA Today. Homeowner Desiree Borden, who had earlier fled the fire with her family, said she was thankful.

"Once you got past one fire, there was another one, once you got past the next one, power poles were falling on you," Borden said, according to Good Day Sacramento. Then her family received a phone call. "They said, 'Your home was a safe haven for us, your home saved our lives.' "

'It was everywhere at once.'

Vinnie Terranova, 61, was preparing to flee the Woolsey Fire in the Malibu hills Friday when time suddenly ran out, reported The Boston Globe.

"I looked out my back window and I see this wall of flames about a mile long coming towards us that was not there 10 minutes earlier," Terranova said, according to the publication. "It was crazy fast. It was everywhere at once."

Terranova threw his guitars in his pickup truck and took off, then returned for his daughter's cat before fleeing with embers raining down around him, reported the Globe.

"I drove faster than I've ever down that hill," he said, according to the publication. "I was flying through the flames and dark smoke. The fire was really racing after us, and man I was scared."

'We're not going to leave you.'

Trapped by flames in the first hours of the Camp Fire early Thursday, some survivors escaped into Lake Concow near Chico, reported The San Francisco Chronicle.

One family also persuaded a 90-year-old neighbor named Bruno to join them in the chilly waters. All of the people involved asked that their last names not be used, reported the publication.

"Bruno was saying, 'Just leave me. I can't do this,' " Scott, the father of the family, recalled, reported the Chronicle. "I said, 'Bruno, we're not going to leave you. And I'm not going to burn, so you better hurry.' "

Evacuees who left a caravan of vehicles fleeing the fire also took refuge in the lake, reported the Chronicle.

"It was a true rescue story," Cal Fire Division Chief Garrett Sjolund said, according to the publication. Some survivors were later hospitalized with burns or hypothermia.

'We sat there watching our houses burn.'

Ethan White finally fled his Malibu home, which he'd stayed to try to save, hours after his wife Nikki had evacuated the Woolsey Fire with their two young children Friday, reported Malibu Surfside News.

He joined a group of neighbors as the flames swept into their neighborhood, White told the publication.

"We were talking about all the good times we had there, our kids learning to ride bikes, all the memories," he said, reported the News. "We sat there watching our houses burn, almost like sitting around a campfire. It was surreal. Totally unworldly."

'The whole world was on fire.'

Brian Robertson of Magalia, north of Paradise, was asleep in his trailer when his pit bull, BB, alerted him to the oncoming Camp Fire, reported The New York Times.

"She woke me up and the whole world was on fire around us," Robertson said, according to the publication. He escaped but believes his trailer was destroyed.

'It's a miracle.'

Amber Paton and her family escaped a tower of flames on foot in Paradise, all but destroyed by the Camp Fire, reported KTXL.

"Family upon family just running down the street. Running," Paton said, according to the station. "Flames on both sides. It was crazy."

Afterward, Paton discovered an urn containing her grandmother's ashes intact on the mantle of a fireplace in her mother's burned-out home a few blocks away, reported KTXL.

"It's a miracle," she said, according to the station. "It's a sign. It's a sign that it's going to be OK."

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(c)2018 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

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