A red sky and a road on fire: How this man 'barely survived' California's Dixie Fire

Mike Chapman
Redding Record Searchlight

CHESTER, Calif. — As embers from the Dixie Fire rained down around him in the predawn hours of Thursday morning, Alan Kuhl thought the road to safety was impassable, as was any route of retreat.

In an interview in the parking lot of a shuttered grocery store in the evacuated town of Chester on Thursday, Kuhl described a harrowing escape from the burning woods.

"I barely survived," he said. His voice trailed off.

Help had unexpectedly arrived, but not before the 72-year-old braced for death.

"I'm going to die, but I'm not going to burn to death," he remembered telling himself. Kuhl had a handgun and had resolved to shoot his labrador Slim and himself to prevent a gruesome death.

Alan Kuhl, 72, was prepared to shoot and kill himself and his dog Slim rather than be burned alive in the Dixie Fire.

The Dixie Fire on Friday was California's largest active wildfire as it continued to burn in Plumas, Butte, Lassen and Tehama counties.

The three-week-old blaze was nearly 433,000 acres and the third-largest wildfire in state history, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The fire was 35% contained as of Friday morning. 

Kuhl was born in 1949 in Susanville, the county seat of rural Lassen County just northeast of the fast-moving blaze. He returned to California a month ago from Idaho to work as a fire watcher for A&M Timber in Chester.

He owes his life — and Slim's — to firefighters, including crews from the Palm Springs and Alameda County fire departments.

Kuhl was sleeping in his trailer at the remote Juniper Lake Campground, 12 miles north of Chester on dirt roads. Just after midnight Thursday, he woke up.

"The whole sky was red," he said. "There's so much smoke and embers. I panicked. Started wrapping everything up, trying to hook onto this trailer. I couldn't see it at night," he recounted. "(The fire) came so quick on me, I had no idea where it was. It came so fast; it just exploded."

His escape path was a logging road, but the inferno was too much.

"The whole road was on fire. I couldn't turn around."

Kuhl said driving through the flames and running off the road twice "tore the hell out of my car."

"I couldn't go any farther. I couldn't see. There was one little bare spot and I stopped, got out my fire extinguisher and started putting fires out around my car," he said. "The embers and sparks were raining on me."

He thought the smoke would kill him if the fire didn't.

"I laid down on the ground (to breathe), got up and here come some headlights — fire boys," Kuhl said. "They got me down to a bare spot and they got me out."

The firefighters led him to a burned, black patch of ground where the Dixie Fire already had burned through at Lassen Meadows. He took refuge there before driving into Chester.

Kuhl said he's had enough of wildfires and plans to get out of California as soon as he can. He'll move to Michigan, he said.