How Quick Thinking Saved Hundreds of Lives during Camp Fire

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PARADISE -- As the Camp Fire approached Paradise, many were stuck in gridlock, unable to escape.

But some found cover in an unlikely place thanks to a split second decision by firefighters who helped nearly 200 people take shelter in a vacant strip mall.

On the morning of November 8, Cal Fire engineer Calin Moldovan learned about the fire through a text from his captain in Magalia.

"I said, 'How bad?'" Moldovan said. "He said, 'Bad.'"

Moldovan left his Rocklin home and made his way to Butte County.

The morning sky changed dramatically.

"It was black, but it was morning," he said. "The feeling in your stomach was there, that it was bad."

As soon as he got to Paradise, Moldovan looked for a place to pitch in.

"I made my way to the intersection of Skyway and Clark, and it was gridlock," Moldovan told FOX40.

Moldovan had seconds to come up with a plan as the fire approached.

"It's the most pressure I've ever felt in my entire life," he said.

With help from a few deputies, police officers and a volunteer firefighter, he ordered 150 people out of their cars and into a strip mall parking lot. They were terrified.

"Everyone was in that shell shocked state," Moldovan said. "I went to a few of the cars that were there and I knocked on the window and people were just sitting and holding onto the steering wheel and just looking forward."

The group had to trust his plan to break into the buildings in the hope the structures could withstand the fire long enough for them to survive.

As the flames approached, relief arrived -- Cal Fire Battalion Chief Sean Norman.

“I met with engineer Moldovan and he’s like, 'I'm glad you’re here,'" Norman said.

Norman ordered the break-in and used some hand tools to help force a door open.

"I believe one of the sheriffs said, 'Just like the Titanic. Women and children first,'" Moldovan said.

Flames surrounded the strip mall in every direction. Chief Norman remained calm on the outside -- but on the inside, he was scared just like everyone else.

"There was a part of me that thought, 'What am I going to see happen if these buildings catch on fire with 150 people in there?'" Norman said.

Firefighters call the tactic a "temporary refuge area" or a safe spot to ride out a fire. Crews often use them but Norman says they've never been used for evacuees.

"We may have shown a light on a - at least a tactic or option that's out there," Norman said. "And we certainly can prove it worked and were very successful in deploying that here multiple times during the fire."

Norman says he helped hundreds of people take shelter inside three different strip malls during the Camp Fire, and it worked.

At Skyway and Clark, the buildings were vacant and fire resistant. They were made of metal frames and stucco.

And timing was key.

"Right as the fire front hit really hard, cavalry showed up and the crowd was cheering and taking cell phone video. It was emotional," Norman said.

The group survived. It was a victory in a day full of devastation.

Moldovan and Norman say they didn't do it for the glory. They were both off when the Camp Fire started. They chose to be there to save lives.

"I feel like I did nothing more than what I've always trained for," Moldovan said. "I truly feel like every person that day was a hero."

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