Paradise residents recall horrifying escape from the Camp Fire

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Justin Sullivan/Getty Images(PARADISE, Calif.) -- Brian Andrews awoke on Nov. 8 to his panicked daughter at his bedside.

A fast-moving wildfire that would become the deadliest, most destructive in California's history was heading straight for Paradise.

Andrews, a 52-year-old retired firefighter, had moved into his one-story home in the bucolic Northern California town a decade ago and was slowly renovating it, replacing the vinyl siding with sturdy wood. Now, his 24-year-old daughter was urging him to leave it behind.

"She didn't really like it when I said, 'Go and get grandma out of town, and I'm going to stay here and defend the house,'" Andrews told ABC News in a recent telephone interview. "She said, 'Dad, don't forget my wedding dress.'"

Andrews got dressed and went outside, grabbing a leaf blower from the shed and three garden hoses. He used a ladder to climb on top of the roof, where he spent the morning clearing out dead, dry foliage from the gutters and spraying water at embers landing on his property that the Camp Fire had spit into the breeze several miles away.

Andrews was keeping up with the onslaught of embers, but soon darkness encroached on his neighborhood as thick smoke from the blaze choked the air, blackened the sky and blocked out sunlight. A firefighter who had come by Andrews' house earlier returned in the afternoon to advise him that he was "completely surrounded" and "the fire's coming."

"I had to really sit and evaluate what is this worth," Andrews said. "I hadn’t been able to talk to my daughter for about two to three hours, I know she was worried. And I just decided to heed the warning and go ahead, grab my things and get in the truck and leave."

Andrews ran inside and grabbed a removable hard drive containing all his photographs along with eight family photo albums, two safes full of negatives, a suitcase of clothes, his fire helmet and his daughter's wedding dress. He put everything in the back of his truck, took one last look at his home and hit the road around 1:40 p.m.

As he pulled out of the driveway, Andrews saw his neighbor's house across the street catch fire from flames that had engulfed their fence.

"I can't even really tell you what I was feeling, if I was feeling really anything. It was sort of, you know, like a dream," he said.

Driving slowly down Bille Road with his house in his rear-view mirror, Andrews saw bright orange flames and glowing embers on either side of him -- cars, homes and trees were burning. He took out his cellphone and began filming as he carefully made his way out of Paradise.

"Jesus Christ," he muttered to himself in between heavy breaths.

"I thought, 'This is halfway through the consumption of the town, I better document this,'" he told ABC News. "I want people to know this can happen and this should never happen again in another town."

As he turned his truck onto Clark Road, Andrews was in disbelief at the fiery sight before him. Most of the buildings -- the slew of family-owned businesses, the local supermarket, even the McDonald's -- had burned to the ground.

"Everything’s burned. Oh my god, I mean everything," Andrews says while still filming. "I've been in the fire service almost 25 years, and now I get what it's like for your own town to burn."

Downed power lines and smoldering tree branches littered the road. The sky was murky and dark as night but it was in the middle of the afternoon. Andrews continued driving slowly as fire trucks whizzed by and sparks from the flames ignited new blazes.

"It's behavior was just very, very aggressive," he told ABC News of the wind-driven fire. "Spots were just raining down all over the place."

'We drove through hell'

The Camp Fire, which ignited before sunrise Nov. 8 in a parched, wooded area of Butte County in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, spread across 240 square miles over the course of 18 days, annihilating Paradise and other communities in its path. Nearly 14,000 homes were destroyed and at least 85 people died from the blaze, mostly in Paradise.

Friday marks three months since the devastating fire broke out. Dozens of Paradise residents remain displaced from their burned properties after being allowed to return due to the ongoing cleanup efforts. The federal government plans to reimburse the state for cleanup so long as the properties were not deemed safe already for people to live.

The cause of the blaze remains under investigation.

"I had no idea that there would be that many people that died in the fire, and my heart truly breaks for them," Andrews told ABC News. "Nobody deserves to go out like that. It's horrifying to just think about."

Some of those who survived, like Andrews, documented their harrowing escapes as they fled with their families and few belongings.

Michelle and Daniel Simmons grabbed their wedding rings, a stuffed animal and a blanket, then piled their four young children into the car before fleeing for their lives. The family had to drive through flames on the Skyway, the main road in and out of Paradise. The car became extremely hot and the smoke-filled air was difficult to breathe.

Michelle used her cellphone to film just a few minutes of the horrifying ride out of her hometown as Daniel drove.

"Oh my god," she says repeatedly as her voice shakes with terror. "Take little breaths," she tells their frightened children, ages 8, 7, 2 and 1.

"There was a couple moments where I didn't think we were going to get out," Daniel told ABC News in a recent sit-down interview. "We drove through hell."

It took them about two hours to get out of Paradise. Once they reached safety, Michelle took the kids out of the car, hugged them and cried. The family is together and safe, but their home is gone.

"It's that fine line between just being so incredibly grateful to be alive and just so, so sad because, you know, that was our life," Michelle told ABC News.

'My little slice of Paradise'

Authorities lifted all remaining evacuation orders for residents of Paradise and the unincorporated area of Butte County on Dec. 15. That day, Andrews returned to his property for the first time since leaving town.

Much of his house was incinerated, with only some timber and a brick chimney left standing. One of the first things Andrews did was put up Christmas lights and decorations on the chimney and in the scorched front yard.

Although the former firefighter was fairly well prepared by having a to-go bag and most of his photos saved on a removable hard drive, there are a few other valuables he forgot to grab, like his daughter's baby-book and a folder of all her childhood drawings.

"She drew me a giraffe one morning when she was about 3 years old and she came downstairs and said, 'Daddy, I drew this for you!' And I put notes on it, you know, the date and everything and what she said, and I had a bunch of those, just little keepsakes," Andrews told ABC News, tearfully.

Andrews, who said he now goes to the property about three times a week, hasn't found his daughter's drawings nor her baby-book. But he did find her first Christmas ornament that her grandmother gave her. The ornament, a pair of shoes, was covered in ash and soot but the words "baby's 1st" were still clearly visible on the bottom.

The find gives him hope there will be pockets of other salvageable things within the destruction as he gradually sifts through it, he said.

For now, Andrews lives in a rental apartment in the nearby city of Chico with his daughter, her husband and another relative. They are generally "doing well and getting on with life," he said. But soon he must make a difficult decision -- to rebuild his home in Paradise or move on.

"This morning, I woke up feeling sad just from thinking about moving to another town," Andrews told ABC News. "I don't think I would be happy somewhere else but my little slice of Paradise. So I'm pretty sure I'm going to rebuild my home."

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