Aaron Parmley knew it was a bad day when when he woke up Nov. 8, but it wasn’t until the Butte County sheriff’s deputy found himself trapped in the burning town of Paradise that he realized it might be his last.
The 23-year-old was attempting to evacuate four nurses and a California Highway Patrol officer when the engine of his cruiser died. As flames crackled on both sides of Pearson Road and thick smoke stole his breath, Parmley flipped on his department-issued body camera.
“I wanted to turn it on,” he remembered thinking, “in case I die.”
On Thursday, the Butte County Sheriff’s Office released footage from Parmley’s camera, which captured the group’s harrowing escape from the state’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire on record. The video was requested by the Los Angeles Times under the California Public Records Act, and officials subsequently released it.
In an interview with The Times, Parmley said he had woken up that morning to text messages about a big fire in nearby Concow and soon heard radio traffic of other deputies heading up the hill to evacuate people.
Racing toward the flames, Parmley was the first deputy to arrive at Adventist Health Feather River hospital. The evacuation appeared to be going well, so he decided to get closer to the fire, which was farther east.
He drove up Canyon View Drive, which overlooks the Feather River Canyon, just north of California’s second-largest reservoir, Lake Oroville.
The fire was 20 yards away from a retirement home, Feather Canyon Gracious Retirement Living, and again, Parmley was the first deputy there. There was a long line of elderly patients waiting to get into a tiny, 16-person shuttle.
“The manager said that no one had been evacuated yet. And that there were 140 people that needed to be evacuated,” he said.
At the retirement home, Parmley’s camera recorded the howl of wind and glowing flames everywhere. “It’s embers,” Parmley said to himself. “It’s not good.”
Parmley radioed for help and started evacuating the building. Multiple cop cars arrived, as did vans from the jail. Soon there was a long line of cars arriving to pick up loved ones.
“We just started shoving everybody into those random cars, and everybody got out,” Parmley said.
Within half an hour, “there was fire everywhere. And you could hardly see. There was black smoke. And it was terrible,” he said. He was the last person out.
Parmley made his way out to Pentz Road, one of only three main north-south routes in this mountaintop town hemmed in by canyons on both sides.
He headed south in his Ford Crown Victoria, clearing traffic on Pearson Road as flames got even closer, and then headed north to help evacuate the town of Magalia.
But he got stuck in traffic just north of the evacuated hospital. As his car filled with smoke, a firefighter emerged and knocked on his door. Traffic was blocked northbound, the firefighter said, turn around. Oh, and hey — he had four nurses who needed to leave with Parmley, the firefighter said.
Parmley took the nurses — three women and a man — and headed south on Pentz Road, but soon, “it was impassable,” he said. He headed west on Pearson Road, trying to get the nurses to one of the other escape routes down to the Sacramento Valley, but there was fire everywhere, and he could see no more than 10 yards.
He saw a California Highway Patrol car stopped in the middle of the road, close to Rockford Lane, and Officer Nick Powell asked for help — another car had broken down and there were people stranded. Parmley, Powell and the male nurse moved them into another fleeing car and directed the remaining cars out, as embers rained over the road and landed in their hair.
But Powell had one more favor to ask — his vehicle was totaled after another car fleeing the fire amid heavy smoke collided with the cruiser.
“Hop in my car,” Parmley said. Powell squeezed into the front passenger seat with a nurse, while the others sat in the rear seat.
But something was wrong with the Crown Vic. Parmley had left the car running while he assisted the other evacuees, but now the engine was dead. He tried starting it up again, but nothing happened.
“We have to walk,” he told the others. He radioed that he was evacuating his car and had to repeat himself three times to be heard. Then, he hurt his ankle while trying to leave his car and head east to Pentz Road.
“Everything was engulfed in flames around us,” Parmley said. “It was hard to see, and hard to breathe.
“I thought that was where I was going to die.”
Some of the nurses called their loved ones to say goodbye.
Parmley’s body cam video revealed a landscape drenched in darkness and flame. Giant embers rained on the roadway, and both sides of the road glowed red.
“It’s bad,” Parmley said in the video.
Voices on the police radio were grim. “It’s almost impossible to get somebody in there,” a voice said.
Then he could hear rumbling in the distance. “Are they coming for us?” a nurse asked.
Moments later, the headlights of a bulldozer pierced the veil of smoke.
“There’s someone here to save us,” he thought. “I have never been happier in my entire life than when I saw that bulldozer.”
“Can we get in?” Parmley said.
“Yeah, come on,” the driver said.
Then a woman can be heard saying, “There’s no room.”
“Get in,” Parmley said. The driver is heard saying, “I can’t fit everybody.”
Then came the glorious honk of a fire engine, pulling up behind them, with enough room to get them out of there.
Parmley clambered up the truck, took a deep breath, and placed his hand on his chest, turning off the camera.