California fire officials this week published a dramatic video documentary showing glimpses inside the chaotic and lethal first few hours of last fall’s Camp Fire from the perspective of the firefighters who rushed in.
The November 2018 fire would turn out to be the worst wildfire in state history, destroying nearly 90 percent of the town of Paradise as well as other hillside communities in Butte County. In total, 85 people died and 19,000 structures were destroyed.
Early in the 17-minute video, called “Into The Fire,” a camera inside a firetruck shows flames feet away as the truck races along a black and smoky hill road. “Oncoming!” someone in the truck shouts as headlights suddenly appear out of the flames ahead.
“I fully expected, giving those orders, we were putting firefighters in jeopardy,” a supervisor says. Notably, though, no firefighters were killed in the near month-long siege.
The first duty wasn’t to fight the fire. It was to try to save lives in a town surrounded by leaping fire.
“People asked us straight up, ‘Am I going to die today?’” one firefighter recalls. “And I said, ‘We will not let you die today.’”
One firefighter recalls an ambulance in flames, and talks about a paramedic who stood on the roof of a house with a hose in hand to douse flying embers as patients hid inside.
Elsewhere on the hill, firefighters ordered residents to get into a pond to hide from flames.
Fire calls overwhelmed 911 operators. “By 7:30, almost an hour after the initial dispatch, everything went into pure chaos in the command center,” Capt. Stacer Hartshorn said, as 911 calls for help flooded in. “Every line in our phone system was red.”
“Everything is backed up, where do we go? I’m scared and I have my kid with me,” a caller shouts.
“He’s in a wheelchair. We can’t get him out of the house,” a shaky voice tells dispatchers.
Hartshorn found himself at one point talking with an elderly woman on the phone who was trapped in a house on fire. He says he tried to see if there was a way they could get out of the house, but, “she just said, ‘I can’t.’” He could hear the woman choking and gagging. He heard a younger woman scream. Then the phone went silent.
Some firefighters who dealt with the fire lost their homes as well. “I said goodbye to my house” and went to work that day, one firefighter says.