“We saw that it was actually really large, looked like a nuke had gone off or something,” said Gavitte, an 18-year veteran of the California Highway Patrol.
As sirens blared from his helicopter, residents were grabbing their belongings and jumping into their cars to head down Atlas Peak Road, the only way out of the rural community.
But unbeknownst to those on the ground, flames would soon engulf the road, with downed trees and power poles blocking any exit. Over the next few days, the raging fires would kill at least 21 people and destroy 3,500 homes and businesses. Strong, dry winds are expected to fan new outbreaks in coming days.
“We could see pretty well this huge, three-mile and growing line of fire coming toward all these folks that probably couldn’t see it,” Gavitte said. He shined his searchlight on drivers to get their attention and prompt them to stop.