iStock/Thinkstock(SANTA ROSA, Calif.) — Charlie Yates awoke to the smell of smoke around midnight on Monday — just two weeks after moving cross-country from Virginia to call California home again.
Hours later, the 26-year-old had packed everything he could into a truck and was fleeing for his life, surrounded by walls of fire on both sides of the road.
Yates and his girlfriend, Taylor Walden, were living in Virginia when they realized they wanted to be close to family again. So they used every bit of money they had, packed up a trailer full of their belongings and moved into Yates’ father’s pool house in Santa Rosa until they could find their own place.
It wasn’t long before their lives were uprooted again, with the smell of smoke warning Yates it was time to act.
“I had a weird feeling, so we started gathering important items and put them near the door,” Yates said.
Knowing they had to act fast, Yates and his father gathered what they could and loaded their trucks. As they began to drive, there were flames on both sides of the road, Yates told ABC News. He remembers the flames being as tall as the trees surrounding them.
“It was, one point, pitch-black, and then all of a sudden it was bright orange within a matter of minutes,” he said.
Yates said he felt terrified and his main concern was making sure his family made it out of the fire alive.
“I was just praying that none of their cars got stuck,” he said. “My stepmother drove behind me in her car.”
As he and his family were headed to a nearby hospital for safety, Yates looked in his rear-view mirror and saw the bed of his truck with all of his belongings on fire. He had to leave his truck in the middle of the intersection and run for his life.
“My truck survived and is still driveable, but we have nothing,” he told ABC News.
Sharing the news with his girlfriend, who was in San Diego at the time, was devastating. Walden had been a victim of a 2007 California fire where she lost everything. Hearing this was all too familiar.
“I felt helpless. They didn’t know the fire was on top of them,” Walden said, adding, “They thought they had time.”
Although Walden felt helpless, Yates was thankful the girlfriend he had known since freshman year in high school was alive.
“I’m just really thankful she wasn’t here. It was one less person I had to worry about being OK,” Yates said. “I knew she was safe.”
Yates and his family went to the Finley Community Center in Santa Rosa to seek shelter. They were the first people to arrive there. Not too long after they arrived, Yates saw a man collapse and helped carry him to safety. A volunteer told him they had loads of elderly and injured evacuees on buses headed to the center. Yates began grabbing office chairs, office tables and anything he could find in the community center to help get people off the buses and into the community center safely.
“That’s what matters at the end of the day: making sure everyone is safe,” he said.
He said that despite what has taken place, everyone is trying to remain in high spirits.
“It’s going to be hard, but it’s overwhelming how much support we’ve gotten,” he said. “I’m just so thankful for the first responders; we wouldn’t have made it without them.”
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