PARADISE, Calif. -
It was the best bad place.
To the south was a gun shop called Fins, Fur & Feather Sports, stocked with live ammunition.To the northeast, a propane yard. Across the street, a Fastrip gas station. All around, soaring, drought-crisp pines.
And in the center? About 150 terrified people who had fled the ferocious Camp f
ire only to be stopped at the intersection of Skyway and Clark Road, forced to sit out the deadliest conflagration in California history.
In a parking lot. Surrounded by fuel. Barred from escape by roaring fl
ames and roads that were choked, first with traffic, then abandoned vehicles, and, finally, with burned-out hulks of charred metal.
"Are we gonna die?" volunteer firefighter Chris Rainey was asked, over
and over again. His job that day was to keep the panicky crowd as calm as possible. His response each and every time: "No, you're not gonna die."
Despite its obvious downsides, he told them, the parking lot was the safest plac
e to be on Nov. 8 as flames raced through Paradise with astonishing speed, taking authorities and residents by surprise, snarling roads with evacuees and killing at least 88 people.
A complicated series of small decisions made by firefighters, law enforcement personnel, volunteers and evacuees themselves saved the people in the parking lot and hundreds of others - men, women and children who could not leav
e their burning neighborhoods and had to do what no one wants to do in a disaster.
Calin Moldovan, an engineer with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, had just started an 11-day vacation at his home in a Sacramento suburb when he awoke to a text message from his captain in Magalia, population 11,000 or so, tucked on a ridge in the Sierra Nevada north of Paradise.
The message bore a single image: a giant, billowing column of smoke.
How bad? Moldovan texted back.