'I was sitting in my car just screaming, waiting to die': A survivor of California's Camp Fire describes her harrowing escape

Katie Canales/Business InsiderJackie Rabbit was one of many residents of Paradise, California, who evacuated as the fast-moving Camp Fire swept through the town on November 8.

PARADISE, California – Like many other residents of Paradise, Jackie Rabbit didn’t receive an evacuation notice on her phone on the morning of November 8.

Instead, as the fast-moving Camp Fire roared toward the 27,000-person town in Northern California, she got a call from her 12-year-old daughter. Her school was being evacuated, she said, so Rabbit had to come pick her up.

Rabbit’s husband went to retrieve their daughter, and Rabbit left 15 minutes after him with their dog, Finnegan. But everyone in the town was leaving, creating gridlock. Rabbit’s husband made it to the main road, but she was stuck.

“I was sitting, frantically texting everybody,” Rabbit told Business Insider while in Chico, a town just west of Paradise. “Our nanny, who is also a very good friend of mine, is pregnant – she’s due in a couple weeks – and I’m frantically texting her to get out.”

She sat, unmoving, as the flames began to engulf both sides of the road around her – and approached her car.

The Camp Fire is now the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history, killing at least 77 people and levelling 15,558 structures. It’s now 66% contained, but on that Thursday morning, it was spreading at a rate of 80 football fields a minute.

“The only light was the sparks and flames from everything around you,” Rabbit said. Otherwise, the smoke made it look like midnight.

“The sky was completely black,” she said. “It was probably 9 or 10 o’clock in the morning, but it was pitch black outside.”

Accompanying the darkness and fire were sporadic, thunderous roars.

“You could hear explosions every couple of seconds, just like, ‘boom, boom, boom,'” Rabbit said. The sound came from propane tanks and electrical transmission lines bursting.

Despite her panic, Rabbit tried to keep things in perspective, she said.

“I was sitting in my car just screaming, waiting to die, but trying to tell myself, ‘OK, it may not look like it to me, but I bet they have this under control,'” Rabbit said. “‘I just can’t see that because I’m not a firefighter. I’m not an emergency personnel.'”

She said she was keeping in mind previous wildfires that burned in California.

“I remember having the thought that ‘OK, there are fires all the time, but the death toll is always almost nothing,'” Rabbit said. “‘Hardly anybody ever dies in these fires. I need to have faith.'”

But the flames started swirling closer and closer to where she was, and still the traffic didn’t move.

Paradise camp fire wildfire evacuees 25Katie Canales/Business InsiderRabbit said she might have spotted her car in a video taken by her friend who had toured the decimated town of Paradise in the days after the Camp Fire.

“There was that point where it’s like, ‘All right, I know that I can physically outrun this right now, and if I wait any longer, I can’t,'” Rabbit said. “So I grabbed my dog, grabbed my laptop bag, and we started booking it.”

She pulled her car off to the side of the road, and as she got out, two firefighters came running up beside her carrying an injured firefighter. They asked if she was OK.

“They were just like, ‘Go. Just keep going. We’ve got to get out of here. Just go,'” Rabbit said.

She began to hack and cough in the smoke as she ran for her life.

Rabbit said she abandoned her car somewhere around Pearson Road and Edgewood Lane and took off toward Clark Road. As she ran, she passed other people still sitting in their cars.

“The next morning I found out that several people in that area had ended up passing away in their cars,” she said. At least six people were confirmed to have died in their cars while attempting to flee.

Eventually, Rabbit said, she reached an area of road that wasn’t lined with flames.

Google Maps/Business InsiderRabbit went about 1.5 miles from the intersection of Pearson Road and Edgewood Lane to Clark Road.

“You could definitely tell that we were running away from the fire,” she said. “There were a couple of other families that I ran into further down, people with little bitty kids and people with their dogs. It was insane.”

She must have fallen at some point, she said, since she later realised she had a bloody knee and an injured ankle.

Rabbit later learned that her home was one of thousands destroyed by the fire. She and her family are staying in Chico with her boss, who owns the tattoo shop where she works.

Many other people who lost homes are living in far worse conditions, with some even camping in a Walmart parking lot in Chico.

On Monday, 11 days after Rabbit abandoned her car and escaped on foot, she found her burned car in a tow lot in Chico.

Paradise camp fire burned carCourtesy of Jackie RabbitThe remnants of Rabbit’s 2015 silver Mazda.

She scoured the car’s shell looking for a few keepsake items she’d left behind: her daughter’s baby teeth, a doll, jewellery given to her by her grandmother, and a silver flask that Rabbit gave her husband as an anniversary gift.

She found them.

Paradise camp fireCourtesy of Jackie Rabbit

Rabbit said the attendant who towed her car said the person in the car next to hers had died in their vehicle.

Despite the trauma, Rabbit said, her family plans to eventually rebuild their lives in the area.

“We’re taken care of because we have resources,” Rabbit said. “But there are so many people that don’t.”

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