BOULDER CREEK, Calif. (KRON) — Residents were trapped within a flaming forest when an inferno engulfed the only road in and out of a small mountain community known as Last Chance.
The emergency evacuation notice sent by CalFire officials was too late, residents said. One resident, Tad Jones, died, and other Last Chance residents told KRON4 that they barely made it out alive. Their stories of survival are harrowing.
Jason Hickey spent the night in an open field dodging fireballs and breathing heavy smoke as the CZU Lightning Complex Fire raged all around him in the Santa Cruz mountains.
Hickey was the last person who talked to Jones. The two men had both tried to escape separately by driving out, but flames blocked Last Chance Road. So they turned back to the empty field where CalFire had told Last Chance residents to go when a wildfire broke out.
Jones decided his best shot of survival would be submerging himself in a river one mile away from the field. Hickey chose the field.
Jones’ friends told the New York Times that, if anyone could outsmart a wildfire, they thought it would be Jones. He had lived in the wilderness for most of his life. “He had turned countless times to that same path, which leads to the Big Basin Redwoods State Park and its towering, 2,000-year-old trees. But the fire outmaneuvered him,” the Times wrote.
Hickey said even if Jones had stayed in the field with him, he doesn’t know if the 73-year-old man would have survived.
“It was bad,” Hickey told KRON4. “It’s not likely he would be been alright. The car I rode in took the first brunt of the fireball. I would have been cooked if I didn’t have the car. The car caught on fire and I had to jump out and run around for a while stay out of the big flare ups. The car took the first brunt of the heat. I just got out and ran around and stayed out of the main flareups.”
Hickey had his pet rabbit with him.
“The bunny died when I got out. I had him in a carrier but the smoke was too much. There was a lot of heat,” Hickey said.
“Cal Fire said that’s the place to go if there is a fire. And yeah, it’s probably your best bet. But if there was a bunch of people there with cars trying to move in and out, stay away from the fire, there would have been a lot of casualties because there was only a little circle that I could drive around in to stay out of the fire. The whole field was like a tornado. Pretty surreal. The big cinder storms were going at 80 miles-an-hour,” Hickey said.
According to the New York Times, Cal Fire’s plan for Last Chance “fell apart” the night of August 18.
“Evacuation orders came late. Cal Fire trucks never made it beyond a few miles down Last Chance Road,” the Times wrote.
Hickey eventually hiked six miles through a burning forest to reach safety. While Hickey was hiking, he stumbled into another Last Chance resident who was also hiking out of the fire.
Pat Kelly said he survived the CZU fire’s initial blast by diving into his pond and using a metal pipe as a makeshift snorkel.
“I went under the water just as the wall of flame went over me. I had put a 10-foot rowboat in my pond, and used it as a shield between my head and the fire. I am convinced the boat kept my head from frying. I would estimate that I was in the pond for at least three hours before I got out and sought cover,” Kelly wrote.
Once the flames swept through the area, Kelly hiked as his only way to get out of the blaze. Kelly encountered Hickey, who appeared like a ghost in the forest.
“I yelled as loud as I could ‘Hello!’ and to my surprise a ghost-like figure appeared from a cloud of smoke. It was a gentleman named Jason. We set out together towards civilization through a surreal landscape of trees showering sparks and choking smoke,” Kelly wrote.
The CZU fires leveled the vast majority of homes dotted along Last Chance Road, including some homes of firefighters. On Tuesday, law enforcement authorities told KRON4 that the road was still impassable.