British Columbia

Former Paradise, Calif., mayor recounts harrowing tale of escaping wildfire

"Every member of town council lost their home. Virtually our entire police department... lost their homes," Scott Lotter said.

'Every member of town council lost their home. Virtually our entire police department … lost their homes'

Krystin Harvey (left) comforts her daughter Araya Cipollini at the remains of their Paradise, Calif., home burned in the Camp Fire on Nov. 10. (John Locher/The Associated Press)

A former mayor and current councilman of Paradise, Calif., has given a chilling account of how quickly and thoroughly wildfire devastated his town of 26,000.

Scott Lotter said most residents have lost their homes to what's now being called the Camp Fire, including almost all of the town's emergency responders. 

"My house is gone, every member of town council lost their home," Lotter told Stephen Quinn, host of CBC's The Early Edition. "Virtually our entire police department but for one officer and dispatcher lost their homes.

Flames consume a home as the Camp Fire tears through Paradise, Calif., on Nov. 8. (Noah Berger/The Associated Press)

"It's very emotional for everyone to see the devastation. As first responders they're all at work, every one of them, even  though they've lost homes and in some cases they've lost loved ones. It's tragic."

Lotter says the fire started in a canyon above Paradise on the morning of Nov. 9, and was quickly blown into town by high winds. 

"I could see the smoke plumes from my house … so we gathered my son and our dog and bunny, my daughter and her dogs, and we packed up and got our photo albums and things and off we went. It took us about two hours to go half a mile on a feeder street because it was so crowded."

Sheriff's deputies recover the remains of a victim of the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif., on Nov. 10. (Noah Berger/The Associated Press)

Lotter said the hilly topography of Paradise combined with failing cell communication made for very tense moments as the fire began to overtake those trying to flee.

"A Verizon fibre-optic cable burned and knocked out nine cell sites," he said. "In the gulch where we were stuck for several hours there was no cell reception."

"Finally we were able to get out and get onto the main road. It had taken me from about nine o'clock to about two o'clock to get all the way out of town, which is about 2½ miles."

Flames consume a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise as the Camp Fire tears through Paradise, Calif., on Nov. 8. (Noah Berger/The Associated Press)

The Camp Fire is now being described as the most destructive in California history, with 29 confirmed dead and 228 people missing, according to area officials as of early Nov. 12. A number of people died in their cars, others in their homes.

More than 6,700 homes and businesses have been destroyed in Paradise with between $2 billion and $4 billion in insured property damage, according to Morgan Stanley.

Two people have also been found dead in Malibu in Southern California, where a wildfire has caused many celebrities to evacuate their homes. 

A body bag near a burned out home in Paradise, Calif. As of early Nov. 12, wildfires in California had claimed 31 lives, with more than 200 people unaccounted for. (John Locher/The Associated Press)

Listen to the full interview with Scott Lotter:

Watch coverage of the California wildfires:

With files from The Early Edition

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.