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 Paradise, California, home.
Vaughan could hear screams and explosions nearby as she and her husband got in their car and drove away Thursday. 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.
But the most devastating is believed to be the Camp Fire, which broke out early Thursday and has grown at an astonishing rate of 80 football fields per minute. It charred 20,000 acres in less than 14 hours Thursday, and has burned an area larger than Manhattan, according to CNN meteorologists.
The fire, fueled by high winds and low humidity, has placed more than 20 million people under red flag warnings.
Authorities have yet to determine the full extent of the damage but said they believe up to 1,000 structures have been destroyed in the inferno.
But the lion’s share were lost in Paradise, according to John Gaddie, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire. Paradise is a town of about 26,000 people some 85 miles north of Sacramento.
Most businesses along the town’s main commercial street have suffered damage if not been outright destroyed. Trees and power lines along the road are down, but some trees are still ablaze.
A used car lot at Skyway and Birch Street displays a collection of burned out cars. The 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 miraculously escaped without flames engulfing their car. It took 3½ hours to make it through the gridlock, she said.
“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.”