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'The terror was when I started feeling the doors heat up': One couple's hellish flight from Paradise

Andrea Bruce says she escaped Paradise, Calif., with her life, a ceramic angel and not much else — having been chased by flames fanned by 120 km/h winds, in one of the deadliest fires in California's history.

'There were people running from their cars because their cars were catching on fire'

Three fires in California have now killed 31 people — but with many more unaccounted for, the death count is expected to rise. (Matthew Henderson)

Andrea Bruce says she escaped Paradise, Calif., with her life, a ceramic angel and not much else.

Bruce fled her home of eight years on Nov. 8 chased by flames fanned by 120 km/h winds, racing away from one of the deadliest fires in California's history.

As of Nov. 12, 31 people have been confirmed dead in the state's current wildfires — 29 in Paradise alone — and that toll is expected to rise.

The so-called Camp Fire that engulfed Paradise is still burning across almost 500 square kilometres north of Sacramento, driven by the Santa Ana winds. Some 6,700 structures are believed to have been destroyed and 200 people remain missing.

'War zone'

Bruce and her husband Bob Bruce — a Vietnam veteran who served as a marine and then in the army — were forced to pack a trailer and speed away along with tens of thousands of other residents of the northern California community once known as Poverty Ridge.

For Bruce, the usual two-minute journey to the highway took an agonizing two hours, as flames licked the sides of her Subaru.

"It looked like a war zone. It's horrible," Bruce said. "There were people running from their cars because their cars were catching on fire. Winds were blowing the embers under the car and you could literally feel the heat of the fire through the door of the vehicle," she said.

"I just really did not think we were going to make it down. The terror was when I started feeling the doors heat up."

Flames glow on either side of a highway near Redding, Calif. (Mathew Henderson)

Bruce had to drive on, ignoring fears that her tires would blow or the car would ignite. Her husband was somewhere on the road behind her, driving their loaded trailer, but they couldn't stay in contact because cell service had been reduced to 911 only.

She said she expected to see the trailer come down the hill on fire.

At one point, she said another panicked driver bashed the back end of her car, and another driver in front of her got stuck on a flaming pole that had fallen onto the road.

But she pressed on through the flames lining either side of the road until she made it to her son's home 24 kilometres away. 

They had just unpacked and gone to bed when they were forced to flee again. The flames had followed them, and now there was no time to pack again.

They made it to the city of Chico, her hometown, and set up in a trailer park.

Bob and Andrea Bruce after their escape from the Camp Fire. 'I just really did not think we were going to make it down,' Andrea says. (Bob and Andrea Bruce)

'Nothing to go home to'

Bruce asked her cousin, a 14-year fire photographer, to check on her property after the flames had passed.

Matthew Henderson says he gets hundreds of requests like this from people frantic to know if their home is still standing, begging for him to save their pets. He says he's able to go into the fire zone because of liberal media laws in California, so he gets as close as he safely can.

"I've never seen destruction like this," he said.

Henderson said he has watched as search dogs hone in on spots in the ash of destroyed homes before alerting their handlers. Fire officials then have to dig to try to find any potential human remains.

He said he climbed through one bathroom window to save two cats.

When he got to his cousin's house, he found it incinerated. He set a few things aside on a retaining wall, so they wouldn't be stepped on. He drew a heart in the ash for his cousin and saved her an ornament.

The Bruce family lost their home in Paradise, Calif., to the ravages of the huge Camp Fire. (Matthew Henderson)

'Nothing to go home to'

Bruce's voice cracks as she described how Henderson saved her the ceramic angel.

"We have nothing to go home to. I lost 200 years of family history in that house," she said.

Bruce says that she and her husband will go back when it's safe and sift through the ash.

Then she says she and her husband will apply for their insurance and travel the country.

"My husband is a war veteran and it's time he saw the country that he defended and loves so dearly," she said.

The Camp Fire has destroyed an estimated 6,700 structures. (Matthew Henderson)
Matthew Henderson, photographed by a sheriff's deputy, has taken photos of wildfires in California for 14 years. He went back to Paradise after the community burned to see if his cousin's home still stood. It was gone. (Napa Valley fire official)

About the Author

Yvette Brend is a CBC Vancouver journalist. Yvette.Brend@CBC.ca @ybrend

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