Watch: Mad Dash to Escape Wildfires in Northern California

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By Becky Bratu and Erin McClam

A daring race through an inferno caught in a dramatic video happened, partly, because homeowners didn't realize the extent of the danger until it was almost too late.

The so-called Valley Fire broke out early Saturday afternoon, but Julie Wolf, a longtime resident of Anderson Springs, California, didn't hear about it until her son and daughter-in-law visiting from the Bay Area told her about it later that day.

"'Don't you know that the hill is on fire?'" Wolf said her son asked her. She said a mandatory evacuation order had been put in place around 4 p.m., but she didn't get a call or alert so she was unaware.

The Valley Fire, considered the most destructive of several in the state, grew to 67,000 acres on Tuesday, more than twice the land area of the city of San Francisco, as firefighters struggled to bring it under control.

Wolf and her family began gathering her essentials — family photo albums, documents, and a cat — but they didn't make the decision to leave the house until 8:30 that night. In hindsight, she said they left too late, but there was no sign the fire had gotten so close. She said she did not smell smoke and couldn't see any flames or hear any sirens.

They took three cars and drove toward the top of the hill, on the only road out of the small community toward Middletown. That's when they saw the fire, Wolf said.

"Everything looked like the inside of an oven," she told NBC News Tuesday night.

Her son was in the car in front of her, capturing on camera the dramatic 8- or 9-mile drive through the inferno.

"All I could see was tail lights and fire," Wolf said.

At least 23,000 people have been forced to flee two voracious wildfires in Northern California.

In all, the Valley Fire and a second fire burning outside Sacramento have destroyed more than 700 homes and killed at least one person, a 72-year-old disabled woman who could not evacuate.

Wolf said she felt relieved to have gotten out alive. She is now staying with her family in the Bay Area, about 125 miles away from the place she has called home for about 35 years. She said her neighbors' houses are burned to the ground, so she's worried about her livelihood when she returns. Wolf had been working in the community as a painter and muralist.

But as she described her property, her small adjacent art studio and her orchard, Wolf said she holds on to a flicker of hope that it's not all gone.

"We haven’t seen video of our house, so there’s half a percent chance the fire has jumped over it," she said.