With towering flames bearing down, one victim delayed escape in hopes of saving his new truck — but he could not find the keys. An elderly couple slept as danger erupted, not waking until it was too late to flee down their one-lane road. Another couple, who barely missed their chance to drive away, huddled in a pool, surrounded by fire and choking smoke; he survived, but she did not.
As widely varied stories emerged of how people died in the wind-driven fires that have ravaged Northern California, the element common to each tragedy — and to many of the tales of people who got out alive — was how quickly it happened. Advance warning was measured in minutes or seconds, or never came at all. Hesitation was lethal.
“My dad’s best friend was calling and calling my parents, but they were completely asleep,” said Trina Grant, whose parents, Arthur and Suiko Grant, died at their hilltop property just outside Santa Rosa. “By the time my dad finally picked up and his friend said ‘You’ve got to get out,’ it was probably already too late.”
The confirmed death toll reached 36 on Saturday, making this the deadliest wildfire outbreak in California history, and the figure is likely to climb. Thousands of homes and businesses have been destroyed, hundreds of people who have been reported missing remain unaccounted for, and emergency workers have barely begun the grim work of combing through the blackened, smoking ruins of houses, cars, forests and businesses.