California teen learns to drive while escaping wildfire

Fourteen-year-old Ruben Navarrete learned how to drive the hard way -- heading down a steep narrow road at night with giant flames leaping behind him.

No room for mistakes. Just focus, ignore the blaze and the steep cliff on the side of the road.

Ruben lives with his uncle Joshua Smith and his uncle's wife Jamie in the Cold Springs Rancheria of Mono Indians, a Native American reserve threatened by the Creek Fire.

As of late Thursday the Creek Fire had razed 176,000 acres in the hills of the Sierra National Forest in central California, according to Cal Fire officials.

Ruben's family had two days to prepare for a possible evacuation, and in that brief time his aunt and uncle managed to show him some basics of driving.

"It's like a video game, Ruben," the teenager recalled his uncle Josh telling him.

The fateful call came Monday at midnight. The flames were approaching -- evacuate immediately.

Ruben's aunt and uncle, his three younger cousins and his wheelchair-bound brother piled into the family's three cars.

Aunt Jamie led the pack driving the family Kia SUV, followed by Ruben in a Chevrolet with his brother at his side. Uncle Josh took up the rear driving a pickup truck with busted front lights.

"When it came down to when I had to drive, I was really nervous, scared," Ruben told AFP, speaking from the safety of a hotel room in the town of Clovis.

The flames were moving right behind the small convoy. "I didn't want to look because I was so focused, I didn't want to crash or anything," he said. 

But if you looked out the side window there was "a really big steep hill," he recalled.

Ruben said that he started feeling comfortable behind the wheel only halfway into the 20-mile trip.

- Abandoned home, pets -

Aunt Jamie tries not to talk about the fate of their home, or what happened to the two dogs they had to leave behind. The Smiths still don't know what, if any, fire damage they will face upon returning.

She set up blankets that she brought from the house on the hotel bed to try to give the room a homelike atmosphere, and congratulated Ruben for a job well done.

"It was a crash course because all he had ever driven was about a quarter mile from our home," she said, laughing. 

"It was really nerve racking for all of us."

The Smiths can stay at the hotel for 10 days, courtesy of the Red Cross.

Normally evacuees are sheltered in places like school gyms and sleep on cots, but during the coronavirus pandemic that is no longer an option due to the possibility of contagion.

More than 1,200 rooms have been prepared for fire evacuees at hotels, a Red Cross official told AFP.

- 'Unbelievable' -

Also fleeing on those hillside roads was Stan Jordan, 68, who was driving a large RV motor home.

Jordan has been on the road since November, when following the death of his wife he decided to fulfill a lifelong dream the couple had of driving across the United States.

As a retired truck driver he had the experience to manoeuver his large vehicle down the narrow back roads to safety.

Nevertheless he was shaken by the panic he saw when people at his campground scrambled to escape the fire.

"It was unbelievable. I've never seen flames so tall," he said. Overcome by emotion he paused briefly. 

"And, you know... it was hard to imagine," he added.

Jordan's original plan was to stay in Shaver Lake, an otherwise bucolic tourist spot in the Sierra National Forest, until October.

Now he and his mobile home will instead head hundreds of miles away to the state of Arizona.