As It Happens

California woman wondered if she was going to die as she fled fire with baby

Ellen VandenBerg didn't know if she was going to make it out of Paradise, California with her five-month-old son on Thursday as she fled a wildfire.

At least 5 people have died, as wildfires cause destruction across California

Ellen VandenBerg with her 5-month-old son Knox, dog and husband Ryan Johnson. VandenBerg and her son were forced to flee their home in Paradise, Calif. (Submitted by Ellen VandenBerg )
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Ellen VandenBerg didn't know if she was going to make it out of Paradise, Calif., alive with her five-month-old son on Thursday as she fled a wildfire.

"At one point I thought: 'Should I be pouring water on my son? Are we going to die in our car?'" VandenBerg told As It Happens host Carol Off.

Vandenberg was fleeing the Camp Fire — a devastating blaze that officials say has destroyed the majority of the northern California town of almost 30,000 residents. 

It was one of three major blazes burning across California Friday that officials were concerned about. At least five people have been found dead in their scorched cars, according to The Associated Press.

Grabbed her baby and fled 

VandenBerg was at home waiting for her husband Ryan Johnson as the sky darkened and ash started falling from above. 

She realized at that moment that she had to flee.

She gathered important documents, her cat and dog, clothes, a diaper bag and her son Knox, then jumped in the car.

"As soon as I turned onto my street, out of my little side street, I was stuck in traffic," she said.

VandenBerg estimates it took her three hours to travel only 24 km.

Fueled by high winds and low humidity, the rapidly spreading wildfire has ripped through the town of Paradise, charring 18,000 acres and destroying dozens of homes in a matter of hours. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

'Just go and run'

During all of this, VandenBerg had to take care of her baby alone.

When Knox woke up, she was able to put her car in park and breastfeed him. She spent the rest of the slow journey, with smoke billowing around them, with Knox on her lap.

"I just kept him with me because I actually thought that I was going to have to get out and run," she said.

The one thing keeping her calm was talking to her husband, who was meeting them in the nearby town of Chico, on the phone.

Then the cell service went out.

"I was just trying to stay calm, really. I took a couple of videos of myself just to kind of have something to talk to and just tell my loved ones that I love them," she said.

Emergency personnel evacuate patients as the Feather River Hospital burns while the Camp Fire rages through Paradise. (Noah Berger/Associated Press)

The ominous smoke eventually turned to flames.

"I saw flames on one side of me at one point, and the other side at one point, and it really did feel like we were being engulfed. And we were just all sitting ducks. I mean, it was just terrifying," she said.

Officials opened up both sides of the skyway to allow cars to get out.

"I just took off and had nobody in front of me, and I did way over the speed limit I'm sure, but I made it down to Chico," she said.

'My house is gone'

In Chico, VandenBerg reunited with her husband. They are now staying with his family in Rocklin and trying to come to terms with everything they lost.

"My house is gone," she said.

Flames consume a building as the Camp Fire tears through Paradise, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. (Noah Berger/Associated Press)

She also can't stop thinking about whether all the people on the highway with her escaped.

"I just wonder how many people didn't make it, and how many older folks and people with children in their cars didn't make it," she said.

What gives her hope is the firefighters who were rushing toward the fire.

"I'm just so grateful for them," she said.

Written by Sarah Jackson with files from The Associated Press. Produced by Katie Geleff.