The deadly Camp Fire moved at a top rate of 80 football fields per minute through Paradise, California, a quiet retirement community of about 26,000 people. Dozens of residents burned alive in their cars as they waited in traffic lines to evacuate the city.
"I called my son and said, ‘I love you. I’m not going to make it out of this,'" 81-year-old resident Bobbie Covington, who lost her home to the flames, told VICE News. “It was just like in the movies.”
As of Wednesday evening, the death toll had reached 56, making the Camp Fire California’s deadliest ever. The blaze, now in its eighth day, has also destroyed 8,817 structures. But PG&E, a major gas and power company in California, might have been able to prevent, or at least mitigate, some of that damage. PG&E had originally alerted about 70,000 residents that it planned to turn off power to prevent downed lines from sparking — but it never did.
On Tuesday, a coalition of lawyers filed a lawsuit accusing PG&E of negligence when the fire conditions worsened. Under California law, even if a utility does everything possible to prevent a fire, if its equipment caused the blaze, the company can be held accountable.
PG&E, which said it’s fully cooperating with all ongoing state investigations into the Camp Fire, is already expecting losses of about $2.5 billion for its role in 14 wildfires last year.
“We know, as a matter of fire science, that high winds and dry weather are some of the most dangerous conditions,” said John Fiske, a lawyer representing residents, cities, and counties against PG&E in the Butte fire, NorCal fires, and now the Camp Fire. “Those energized lines with thousands of volts of electricity are running into dry brush, dry trees, dry vegetation, and that’s what causes these wildfires.”
Terry was one of just a handful of Paradise residents who decided not to evacuate the area; he didn’t want to leave his special needs son. After the mandatory evacuation order was in place, Terry came home to a flyer from PG&E on his door that read “Important notice: Electricity may be shut off for safety.”
“They should have shut off their power,” Terry told VICE News. “Why didn’t they?”
This segment originally aired November 14, 2018, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.