A Californian couple survived for six hours as a wildfire raged around them – destroying everything in a five-mile radius – by taking shelter in their neighbours’ swimming pool.
Jan and John Pascoe tried to flee their home in the hills above the city of Santa Rosa as the conflagration closed in on Sunday night only to discover they had been cut off by a wall of flames.
The retired couple had to hold each other for warmth in the cold water even as the fire melted personal effects they left on the poolside.
Meanwhile their two adult daughters endured an agonising wait after losing contact with their parents shortly after calling to urge them to evacuate.
Mr Pascoe, 70, and Mrs Pascoe, 65, described their escape as the death toll for the wildfires rose to 31, making them the most deadly to ravage the state since 1933.
In an interview with the LA Times, the pair said they first smelled smoke around 10pm, yet at the time Mrs Pascoe’s phone said the fire was still 11 miles away and they had received no official alerts.
They then took a call from their older daughter, Zoe Giraudo, saying her father-in-law’s home had burned down 40 miles from theirs and urging her parents to evacuate.
Mr Pascoe, an artist and retired wine broker, put some of his paintings and Dale Chihuly glass bowls he inherited from his mother in his Toyota Tacoma truck and the couple went to bed.
They were woken by another call from their daughter around midnight and by then the wind had picked up and they could see the flames getting closer.
“I looked out the window,” Jan said, “and all I saw was a red glow. I said, ‘John, we’ve got to get out of here.’”
The pair picked up their 17-year-old cat and drove down their driveway to the main road but soon ran into a “wall of flames” and had to head back. When Jan opened her car door the cat leapt out before running off and hasn’t been seen since.
Mrs Pascoe, a retired teacher, said she started to panic and hyperventilate as the couple realised they were trapped. They then remembered that one of their neighbours, who live a third of a mile down the road, had an outdoor pool.
At 12.40am they called 911 to report their location and say they were thinking of heading to the pool, the operator told them to “get anywhere safe”.
When they reached the pool they waited until the last moment before getting into the cold water. By the time they saw their neighbours’ house and a big tree next to the pool go up in flames they decided it was time.
In the water they used wet T-shirts to protect their faces from the embers and moved to the end furthest from the house. Mr Pascoe said he was concerned they would have to tread water as they waited out the fire, but luckily the pool was only 4ft deep end-to-end.
California wild fire
The couple faced the strange prospect of needing to keep warm in the cold water as the fire burned around them, so they hugged each other for heat.
Mrs Pascoe said: “I just kept going under. It was the only way to survive. And I kept saying, ‘How long does it take for a house to burn down?’ We were freezing.”
They waited for six hours for their neighbours’ home to be consumed by the flames and the fire to pass before they could get out and warm themselves on the charred patio around the pool.
Mrs Pascoe later discovered her phone, which she had left in her shoe on the edge of the pool, had been melted by the flames.
As Mr and Mrs Pascoe clung to each other in the water, their daughters Zoe, 38, and Mia, 32, endured an anguished wait to learn their parents’ fate.
By 7am in the morning Zoe said she was preparing herself for the worst and told her husband: “Do you think they are gone? Do you think I need to prepare myself for this?”
An hour and a half later they got word that both their mother and father had survived.
Zoe said: “I started screaming. The first thing mom said to me was ‘I feel so bad I wasn’t able to get ahold of you.’ ‘You’re apologising to me? After all you’ve been through?’”
Mr and Mrs Pascoe are now staying with their daughter Zoe in San Francisco. Their home, which was built in the fashion of a boat with 11 levels and small rooms designed to remind them of places they had travelled, was destroyed in the blaze.
Hundreds of people are still missing in California after 22 separate fires have torn through the state’s famous wine region.
California wildfires, in pictures
The fires, which are being battled by 8,000 firefighters, have so far destroyed more than 3,500 homes and displaced around 25,000 people.