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One mother’s harrowing escape from California’s deadliest wildfire

At least 631 people are missing in California's deadliest wildfire ever -- more than double the previous count, although the larger number may include survivors who safely fled. The Camp Fire has already killed at least 63 people, displaced 52,000 and wiped out nearly 10,000 homes. Reporting from Gridley, near Paradise, special correspondent Cat Wise shares one family’s harrowing story of escape.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's been one week since California's deadliest fire ever destroyed the town of Paradise. As of tonight, 63 are confirmed dead, and 631 missing. That is double the previous count of missing, but it believed it likely includes some who survived.

    The fire also wiped out 9,700 homes in Paradise, and it displaced 52,000 people.

    Special correspondent Cat Wise reports from nearby Gridley on one family who fled.

  • Cat Wise:

    A welcome moment of rest for mother and daughter. Carolina Restrepo and her three children now live in a Red Cross shelter in Gridley, California.

    They came here after fleeing the Camp Fire, which engulfed their hometown of Paradise last Thursday. She filmed this cell phone footage as their family drove through the flames.

  • Carolina Restrepo:

    I was with the three kids in the car, like trying to comfort them. But, in the same moment, my mind was totally, like, no clue. Like, I don't know if we're going to make it.

  • Cat Wise:

    Now, the only possessions they have left are donations. Restrepo was working as the manager of a new restaurant in town when she first heard the news.

  • Carolina Restrepo:

    So, one of my customers at the restaurant, he told me that he needs to leave. And I ask him why. He said that my — they are evacuating my neighborhood right now.

  • Cat Wise:

    She dropped everything and rushed to gather her children from school.

  • Carolina Restrepo:

    The first image I saw, it was all the teachers hugging the kids, because it was raining ashes, raining ashes everywhere, dark. You can't even see, because the smoke was thick. And they were trying — putting as much kids in the school buses, you know, getting out of the town, and a lot of parents running, crying, you know, taking their kids.

  • Cat Wise:

    It ended up being a five-hour journey through an inferno.

  • Carolina Restrepo:

    Flames everywhere. The car inside was like an oven temperature. You can't even touch the glass.

  • Cat Wise:

    What happened next was an act of bravery and kindness that very likely saved the family's life.

  • Carolina Restrepo:

    A gentleman, a guy, and he looked at me and he saw my kids, and he just opened my car doors. He said, let's go.

  • Cat Wise:

    The stranger somehow managed to navigate them out between the abandoned cars.

  • Carolina Restrepo:

    Then we saw the most beautiful light, a flashlight from a fireman, in between everything, like, showing us the way to go out.

  • Cat Wise:

    They had escaped, but many others weren't as lucky. A week after the fire, there are now new questions about why Paradise officials didn't call for a total evacuation sooner and why residents like Carolina didn't receive emergency alerts, leaving many trapped in gridlock.

  • Phil John:

    We knew that there was going to be an issue with bottlenecking.

  • Cat Wise:

    Phil John is the chair of the Paradise Ridge Fire Safe Council. It's a volunteer group that helped craft an evacuation plan for a town that also lost 80 homes in 2008's Humboldt Fire.

    But John said this fire was unlike any before it.

  • Phil John:

    It worked. Didn't work perfectly, obviously. But thousands of lives were saved because of the foresight and the people that worked so hard to create that. But who could guess that a town would be that dry, where every single bit of our fuel would just explode when the embers come flying across?

  • Cat Wise:

    Back at the Red Cross shelter in Gridley, Melissa Thompson is one of many residents still searching for answers.

  • Melissa Thompson:

    Oh yes, that's his shed right there. I believe that's his place.

  • Cat Wise:

    When we met up with her last night, she was learning that her dad's house had been destroyed, but there was no information yet on her own home.

    Thompson is from Magalia, five miles from Paradise, and she says she still hasn't heard if some of her friends and neighbors are alive.

  • Melissa Thompson:

    His name is Tracy Hodges. He's like a brother. He's a stubborn man. I can't get my Gmail to give me my contacts, so I can't get his number.

  • Cat Wise:

    Carolina Restrepo says she hopes to one day thank the stranger who helped her family.

  • Carolina Restrepo:

    I hope to see him again someday soon. Yes, of course, I have his face here. You know, I totally can't forget that face that save us.

  • Cat Wise:

    She and her family will be at the Red Cross shelter for the foreseeable future, but she's committed to rebuilding their life in the town they have come to call home.

    Carolina's story is one of many ha rowing accounts that we have heard from folks here over the last couple of days — Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Cat, so hard to listen to that. So thankful that she and her family escaped.

    But I want to ask you about the number of missing people. It was, what, over 300 yesterday. Now it's jumped to over 600. What's behind that?

  • Cat Wise:

    That's right, Judy.

    It was a big jump up overnight last night. I talked to a press person from the Butte County Sheriff's Office today, and she told me there is a very large team now working full time on the missing persons list.

    They have pulled people in from other agencies. Part of the reason for that jump on the missing persons list is due to the fact that they have been consolidating different persons lists over the last couple of days.

    I was also told that, in some cases, it's taken people several days to report their loved ones missing. Now, they do hope that, over the coming days, as investigators have more time to come to shelters like this and focus on individual cases, that those numbers will come down.

    There will be another update tonight at 6:00 p.m. Pacific time, but, until then, there's obviously a lot of questions about that big jump up.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And here we are, Cat, what, it's been about a week since this all got under way, and you have people living in shelters. What's the story on whether they're going to be able to get back into any sort of housing situation?

  • Cat Wise:

    The estimates are now that more than 11,000 structures burned in this fire. Many of those are homes. Now, that is a staggering number.

    Last night, we talked about how this county had a very limited housing stock prior to the wildfires. Shelters around the area are very full. I believe there may be only a couple of shelters at this point that have openings, motels, hotels completely booked.

    I spoke today with a FEMA spokesperson who told me that they are here on the ground. They are registering people both in Northern California and in Southern California. Some 11,000 individuals have, so far, applied for government assistance. That is a big number.

    FEMA is in the early stages now of talking to local and city authorities here, trying to figure out what the needs of the community are. They're trying to figure out, are people wanting to stay here in this area? Will they be leaving to other places?

    But in terms of a long-term housing solution for this community, it's very much still in the early days.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Such a massive undertaking, is what it sounds like.

    Well, Cat Wise reporting tonight from a Red Cross shelter in Gridley, California.

    Cat, thank you.

  • Cat Wise:

    Thank you.

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