CHICO, Calif. (Reuters) - Nicole Montague and her 16-year-old daughter Destiny noticed a red glow on the horizon as they drove to school in Paradise, California, that Thursday morning. They did not think much of it as they had seen fires nearby in the past.
Since they had not heard any warnings, they shrugged it off. But within minutes mass panic broke out, said Nicole Montague, 45.
They gathered their nine dogs and a few belongings as the trailer park they live in burst into flames.
"As we were driving out, the mailboxes were on fire," Nicole said. "All you could hear were big booms and those were (neighbours') propane tanks starting to explode."
California's deadliest ever wildfire, the innocuous-sounding "Camp Fire," swept into Paradise early on Nov. 8, as a rapid-moving, wind-fuelled disaster that has left at least 76 people dead and more than 1,276 missing. [nL2N1XS09R]
The flames moved so fast that some of the victims died in their cars in a chaotic evacuation as gridlock formed on the two exit routes out of town.
Through sheer luck or quick thinking, many of the survivors only barely managed to escape.
Retirees Julie Walker and her husband, Lane, had lived in Magalia, a northern suburb of Paradise, since 2003.
When the fire threatened their house, the Walkers avoided traffic jams by taking to back roads.
They said they knew a route out because they spend a lot of time exploring in their Jeep. So when the fire came, the Walkers led a caravan of relatives and neighbours out to safety along dirt roads that circumvented the traffic jam.
"They did not know what to do," Julie said of those overtaken by the wildfire while trying to escape. "The fire was on us immediately."
"I DON'T THINK I'M GOING TO MAKE IT"
David Wigham, 51, who splits and sells firewood to support himself, smelled smoke when he woke up early on Nov. 8. Assuming it was far away, he went back to sleep.
He awoke hours later to a world turned red. Embers were blowing in through his front door as he tried to stuff his Chihuahua, Dee Dee, into a backpack.
"I thought we were going to spontaneously combust," Wigham said.
His pickup truck was aflame, so he fled on foot. Three different strangers gave him rides and eventually he made it south to the town of Oroville.
When the Montagues were certain they were going to die, Nicole called her husband Eric, who was trying to flee in a separate vehicle, to say goodbye.
"I said, 'Honey I don't think I'm going to make it out of here, I love you,'" she recalled.
Cars around them caught fire. People behind them on the road got out of their cars, with some fleeing on foot and some jumping into other people's cars to try to escape.
It took them five hours to drive 10 miles (16 km) to Chico, where 15 members of the family are staying in a one-bedroom apartment with nine dogs.
Others would have died on the spot without help.
Betty Myers, 89, wheelchair-bound and diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, was among some 50 residents of an assisted-living facility in Paradise who were evacuated in a caravan of vehicles, Myers' son Ron Rohde said by phone from the San Francisco area.
Fires surrounded them on the road and the sky turned black. One vehicle was abandoned because it was about to run out of gas and they had to try at least two escape routes before making it out.
When Rohde finally reached his mother in Redding, California, she was in bed at a hotel.
"Most of the staff lost their homes. They had to worry about their own families, yet they focused on getting those 50 people out to safety," Rohde said.
Not only could his mother not have escaped by herself, Rohde said, but her Alzheimer's left her unaware of the danger.
"She was sitting in the car saying, 'Oh those are nice lights,' waving at people," Rohde said he was told.
"When I asked her a couple days later what she thought of the fire, she said 'What fire?'"
(Reporting by Terray Sylvester; Additional reporting by Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago and Gabriella Borter in New York; Editing by Bill Berkrot)
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