Justin Bilton and his father sized up the wildfire raging ahead of their car and, thinking their window to escape was closing, decided to race through it.
“Dad, what if the car blows up?” Justin, the driver, asks his father, Charles, sitting beside him.
“(Then) we’re dead,” Charles answers. “Just keep driving.”
A two-minute video shot by Justin shows their harrowing drive along a narrow dirt road as Montana’s Glacier National Park burned around them, why it didn’t work, and how they survived.
‘Dad, this is insane’
The Massachusetts father, 70, and his adult son were camping in the park earlier this month when the Howe Ridge Fire, which has scorched more than 7,800 acres since August 11, closed in on them.
Justin, recalling their escape to CNN’s “New Day” on Tuesday, said they thought the blaze was far enough away that they could drive out in their rental car. He started to record a video, looking ahead through the windshield, as they got underway.
But as they got around a few bends, they saw the crackling fire was much closer. Lush vegetation suddenly gave way to roaring flames and a yellow-pink haze.
“Dad, this is insane,” Justin says after they decide to push forward.
“I know. We don’t want to be trapped in here,” Charles responds calmly.
They turn away from the flames, and it looks like they’re out of danger. But when they continue around another bend, an inferno awaits. Everything around the road is a roaring glow of yellow and reddish orange. Roadside trees are burning and scorched debris flicks off the windshield.
The heat was getting unbearable. More than once, Justin resists his father’s call to drive slowly and carefully.
“Dad, the car is heating up. It’s going to explode,” Justin says.
“We’re alright,” Charles responds, sounding surprisingly calm.
“Jesus, God, help us,” the son says.
A blocked road
Less than two minutes into the video, they come to a downed tree, burning in the road in front of them.
It’s blocking the road. They can’t go forward.
“Oh (expletive)! Dad, we can’t get out!” Justin says.
Calm as ever, Charles announces he’s getting out of the car.
“We get that out of the road. We get gloves,” he says.
By now, Justin has put the camera down, and the video goes black.
How they got out
Charles, it turned out, did not remove the tree.
Instead, Justin put the car in reverse and they drove back the way they came.
“I was shocked how fast he backed that up, and how steady,” Charles told CNN’s Alisyn Camerota, recalling the episode days later. “We were on an 8-foot-wide dirt road with a lot of ruts. And it was hard to see because of the flames and because of the intensity.
“And he did an amazing job. He backed it up. We were able to turn it around, and he drove out of it.”
But that just put them back to the trailhead. They were still trapped by the fire.
They pair abandoned their car and looked for another way out.
At nearby Lake McDonald, they saw two park workers with a motorboat, watching the fire, Charles said.
“We kept yelling and waving, and they just waved back at us like we were saying hi,” he said. “And … we’re going, ‘No, come here, come here, we need help.'”
The workers picked up the pair and escorted them back to their campsite, where they packed up. Then the workers ferried them to safety on the other side of the lake, Charles said.
“They saved their lives,” Charles said.
Looking back on it, Justin says he’s surprised they were able to back out of the inferno when they found the road blocked.
“Once we saw that downed tree, I really didn’t think we were going to be able to get out of there alive,” he said.