One couple's escape from the Camp Fire's flames became a "happy band of vagrants" as their motorhome became a rescue vehicle for several people caught up in the chaos as hundreds of residents fled Paradise.
Jane Latham and Ed Van Der Linden found themselves rescuing people off the road Thursday morning as they tried to get away from the blaze as it bore down on Paradise.
Van Der Linden said he was getting ready to make a plate of eggs for breakfast when they got the call to evacuate from their home at an RV park on Clark Road in Paradise.
They grabbed their cat, Babou, a few supplies and Van Der Linden got behind the wheel of their motorhome. Jane Latham followed him in her car.
The Camp Fire initially started out as a report of a 15-acre fire, but quickly grew to several thousand acres, as it churned through dry brush and trees, pushed by high winds. By Thursday night, the wildfire had enlarged to 20,000 acres and was still growing.
'There was major gridlock'
The couple drove through streets packed with vehicles fleeing in front of the flames. Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said the fire had likely destroyed up to a thousand homes or more and fatalities were likely.
Residents fleeing the fire described panic and chaos as the few roads out of Paradise were jammed with cars and trucks.
"There was major gridlock. What would normally take 25 minutes took two-and-a-half hours," Latham said.
As they drove down Clark Road in bumper-to-bumper traffic, they saw a man walking along the road with his dog and carrying luggage.
A woman directing traffic ran up to the motorhome and asked Van Der Linden if he could give the man and his dog a ride out of town.
"So everybody piled in and we headed on down the road," Van Der Linden said.
They stopped at the VFW hall in town thinking they were safe, but someone told them they needed to keep moving as the fire was still coming. As they were leaving, another man ran up to them and asked if they could take two more elderly residents, he said.
The two had recently been rescued from their home, which was surrounded by flames, Van Der Linden said.
"He actually had to walk through the flames to carry them out," Van Der Linden said.
The couple had trouble walking, so Van Der Linden and the other man carried them into the motorhome, he said.
Latham said she only got their first names — Boris, who was 102 years old, and Jackie, who was 92, she said.
"Once I had the happy band of vagrants in the RV, the young man who was their savior stopped traffic so we could get back out," Van Der Linden said.
On their way down the hill out of Paradise to Chico, they saw destruction and fire all around them, Latham said. They had to drive around utility poles that had burned and fallen into the roadway, they said.
"There was really no good way out," Van Der Linden said.
"As we were coming down the hill I could not believe it. Everything on both sides of the road was on fire," Latham said.
Eventually the whole troupe made it to Chico and camped Thursday afternoon in the Chico Mall parking lot with numerous others who had fled.
The evacuees milled around their vehicles, which were filled with what they could grab before leaving their homes behind. Some said they felt sure their homes were lost in the flames. But they grabbed photos, clothes and a few other supplies before joining the rush of residents leaving town.
Using another evacuee's phone, the man with the dog called his father, who drove to the mall and picked him up.
Latham said her cell phone died and they had trouble reaching Boris and Jackie's daughter. Eventually they flagged down a mall security guard who reached the couple's daughter, who was able to come and retrieve her parents.
Latham and Van Der Linden said they had been through emergencies before, but nothing like the Camp Fire evacuation.
"You know what's weird? I've never been in a situation like this. If it wasn't so scary, it would have been beautiful," she said.