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'If you're going to die, die fighting.' Wildfire victims detail their harrowing stories of survival

Parts of California have been burning for five days now.Homes have been destroyed. People are missing...

Posted: Nov 13, 2018 4:20 PM
Updated: Nov 13, 2018 4:20 PM

Parts of California have been burning for five days now.

Homes have been destroyed. People are missing and 44 are dead.

Accidents, disasters and safety

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California wildfires

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Some of the wildfires' victims were able to escape the infernos, others lost everything and still went back to help.

Here are their stories of survival.

'I'm gonna die and I'm not gonna make it out of here'

Nichole Jolly, a nurse at a hospital in Paradise, California, told CNN's Brooke Baldwin about her harrowing escape from a deadly wildfire.

Jolly thought her life was over as flames surrounded her car, filling it with smoke. Then, she called her husband.

"I called him and said 'Nick, I'm gonna die and I'm not gonna make it out of here, there's just flames everywhere and I don't know what to do,'" she said.

She recalled her husband urging her to run.

"He said 'Don't die, run. If you're going to die, die fighting, you have to run.'"

Jolly said she jumped out of her car and ran. A lack of oxygen along with ash and hot embers getting into her eyes made it hard to escape.

"I put my hand out and I closed my eyes," she said. "I ended up touching the back of a fire truck. I got over to the side of the fire truck, knocked on the doors ... and two firemen came out, picked me up and put me in their fire engine and put a fire blanket on the windows. It was just amazing."

But her ordeal wasn't over. The firefighters said they needed air support or they wouldn't make it. Then, "out of nowhere," Jolly said she saw a bulldozer clear a path for the group.

Jolly says when she arrived to work, she and the other nurses had to stay busy helping others.

"We didn't think about ourselves and our possessions that we just lost."

'Where we had beautiful trees, it's now black'

Amber Toney and her mother Susan Miller filmed their escape from the devastating Camp Fire in Paradise. The two spoke with CNN's Dan Simon about the experience.

Video recorded by Toney shows her trying to calm Miller as she drives through traffic with flames on both sides of the road.

"It's OK mama, oh God. Please, please drive, just please drive," Toney says in a shaky voice.

"I'm trying," Miller, 59, says through sobs.

Later in the video, Toney continues trying to calm her mom.

"It's OK, mama," Toney says.

"I'm so scared," Miller responds.

Miller said she'll have nightmares for the rest of her life because of the experience.

"This was a bucket list I never wanted, of things I've hoped to have never gone through," she said.

Toney said as the two drove through flames, she thought the tires and car were going to melt.

"How can God take a town away that's called Paradise?" Toney asked.

Jerry Krucell, Toney's grandfather, made a separate journey to safety.

"I'm homeless at 82 years of age, and that makes it hard," he said.

Paradise Mayor Jody Jones said 80% to 90% of homes in residential neighborhoods are gone following the Camp Fire.

"Where we had beautiful trees, it's now black," Miller said.

'We thought the fire was going to kill us'

Whitney Vaughan and her husband had just enough time to grab a laundry basket of dirty clothes and some pictures before fleeing their home in Paradise.

They had just fled their home as flames rushed them, Vaughan said. She saw a man "sprinting past our house carrying a little baby, running as fast as he could."

The couple soon found themselves trapped with other evacuees in standstill traffic as the Camp Fire closed in.

"The flames were whipping and spreading so fast," Vaughan told CNN. "It began to jump the road. There wasn't anywhere to go."

People began to panic, Vaughan said. In the chaos, one driver backed up and slammed the front of Vaughan's SUV.

Motorists began abandoning their cars, fleeing on foot with their children in tow.

"There were no firefighters in sight," Vaughan wrote on Facebook. "I am hoping all of these people made it out."

She cried as she recorded video of the terrifying scene, which she posted to Facebook.

Vaughan and her husband escaped before flames could engulf their car, she said. It took more than 3 hours to make it through the gridlock.

"We barely stayed ahead of it," Vaughan said. "And multiple times, as we followed the flow of cars, we thought the fire was going to kill us."

City officials lose everything, but help others

City officials also fell victim to the flames.

Malibu's Mayor Pro Tem Jefferson 'Zuma Jay' Wagner is recovering in a hospital after trying to save his home Friday night during the Woolsey Fire, according to a statement on the city's website.

"The City extends its support and best wishes for a complete recovery and quick return to the community that he loves," the city added.

Meanwhile in Northern California, the Camp Fire has left dozens of firefighters, police officers and sheriff's deputies in homeless.

Leland Ratcliff, captain of the US Forest Service's Feather River Hotshot crew, is among them. He saw the smoke over Paradise on Thursday and said his intuition told him the fire was on a rapid path to destroy the town.

He was able to tell his wife, who took both children out of school before official evacuations began. As the family fled with their dog, cat and important documents, there were already spot fires near their home, Ratcliff told CNN.

Once they were safe, Ratcliff said, he had to make a decision: "Do I go try to save other stuff (from our house) or do I go to try to let people know what was going on?"

He chose the latter, evacuating residents from their houses and plucking them from the streets, putting them on Forest Service vehicles and racing them to points of protection set up by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

He said it wasn't a difficult decision in the moment, but then he realized what things he lost forever in the house he left -- his children's handprints from kindergarten, and his wedding pictures.

"The guilt doesn't come until afterwards, when you realize you don't have that stuff anymore. ... You always want to think that life is more important than property, but it doesn't make it any easier in hindsight."

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