As the wildfire raged nearby, Whitney Vaughan and her husband had just enough time to grab a laundry basket of dirty clothes and some pictures before fleeing their home in Paradise, California.
Vaughan could hear screams and explosions nearby Thursday as she and her husband got in their car and drove away. But they soon found themselves trapped with other evacuees in standstill traffic.
The Camp Fire was closing in.
“The flames were whipping and spreading so fast,” Vaughan told CNN. “It began to jump the road. There wasn’t anywhere to go.”
People began to panic, Vaughan said. In the chaos, one driver backed up and slammed the front of Vaughan’s SUV.
Motorists began abandoning their cars, fleeing on foot with their children in tow.
“There were no firefighters in sight,” Vaughan wrote on Facebook. “I am hoping all of these people made it out.”
Similar scenes played out in other communities this week as a trio of wildfires raged across the Golden State.
The most devastating is believed to be the Camp Fire, which by Friday morning had grown to 70,000 acres and was encroaching on the city of Chico, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as a Cal Fire.
At least five people have been confirmed dead in a vehicle that was overcome by fire in Paradise, the Butte County Sheriff’s Office said Friday.
The blaze broke out early Thursday and has grown at an astonishing rate of 80 football fields per minute. It charred 20,000 acres Thursday in less than 14 hours and has burned an area larger than Manhattan, according to CNN meteorologists.
Fueled by high winds and low humidity, the fire has placed millions of people under red flag warnings.
As many as 1,000 structures are believed to have been destroyed in the inferno, though authorities are still trying to determine the full extent of damage.
The lion’s share was lost in Paradise, said John Gaddie, a spokesman for Cal Fire. About 26,000 people live in Paradise, some 85 miles north of Sacramento.
Most businesses along the town’s main commercial street have suffered damage, if not outright destruction. Trees and power lines along the road are down; some trees are still ablaze.
A used car lot at Skyway and Birch Street displays a collection of burned-out cars. Their husks stand next to other cars that remain unscathed.
One vehicle spared from the fire boasts a small flag advertising “hot deals.”
Vaughan and her husband escaped before flames could engulf their car, she said. It took more than 3 hours to make it through the gridlock.
“We barely stayed ahead of it,” Vaughan said. “And multiple times, as we followed the flow of cars, we thought the fire was going to kill us.”