'Barely breathable': Former Montrealer recounts escape from California fires

Former Montrealer Laurent Eyquem was on the road with his family of four Friday morning, heading south through California in search of a safe place to stay the night as they fled fires alongside more than 150,000 people.

At least 5 killed as fires sweep California

Fires moved in fast on former Montrealer Laurent Eyquem's neighbourhood Thursday, burning through Thousand Oaks, California the day after a local mass shooting. (Submitted by Laurent Eyquem)

Former Montrealer Laurent Eyquem was on the road with his family of four Friday morning, heading south through California in search of a safe place to stay the night as they fled fires alongside more than 150,000 other people.

He's not sure if his house is still standing and is grateful to have made it out alive after fires ripped through his home city of Thousand Oaks, located about 65 kilometres northwest of Los Angeles.

At least five people have been killed so far as the fast-moving fires burn relentlessly across the dry, densely populated landscape.

"Happy to be safe and sound with my family," the film composer told CBC Montreal's Homerun.

"I am just a little worried for my home, for my studio. It's my life that is there. But, being alive, you can make it work and find a way to continue if everybody is safe and sound."

Eyquem is originally from France, but he also holds Canadian citizenship and resided in Montreal for a number of years. He moved to California in 2012.

First the shooting, then the fires

Thursday was a tough day for Eyquem and his family — school was cancelled for his 14-year-old son after a mass shooting in a neighbourhood bar left 13 dead the night before.

Eyquem said his neighbour's son was among those killed.

Laurent Eyquem could hear aircraft overhead as he loaded up his car and truck with the family pets, clothing, passports and whatever data he could salvage from his home film composing studio. (Submitted by Laurent Eyquem)

The shooting and the fallout from it was already emotional, he said, but then fires came ripping in from two directions, threatening his family home in Newbury Park, a town located within Thousand Oaks city limits.

"It was extremely fast," he said. "I had time to pick up my daughter. My wife went to pick up our son."

Highway 101 was shut down by authorities as the fire closed in, turning main streets into parking lots, but Eyquem managed to navigate back roads to his home. He quickly loaded up his dogs, his cat, passports, some clothes and whatever data-packed hard drives he could save.

The family packed their car and truck while the air filled with smoke and the sky darkened.

Fire trucks came pouring into the neighbourhood while helicopters, flew overhead, dropping fire retardant chemicals on homes not a block from his own.

"It started to be barely breathable," he said. "When I went to the garage to go to pick up the luggage and try to grab as many things as possible, it started to be extremely smokey. The dogs were extremely nervous. It was smelling smoke everywhere through the home."

All they could hear, he said, were the helicopters.

Surrounding hotels all booked, roads packed

He got the family pets to a kennel a safe distance away, and the four of them managed to find a hotel for the night out of the fires' reach, but not everybody was so lucky.

Hotels were all booked in the surrounding area, he said. 

Firefighters battle the Camp Fire as it tears through Paradise, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. (Noah Berger/Associated Press)

"It's impossible to have a hotel room," said Eyquem. "There are families with kids in the lobby, with babies staying there, hoping there will be a cancellation of a room."

With family located further south in Orange County, he has a place to stay Friday night, but he is still unsure how his property has fared. 

"We have no information," he said. "The road is closed. Nobody is getting back."

For now, he said, he and his family are taking it "hour by hour," tuning into the news and hoping for the best.

Laurent Eyquem, looking back on his home city of Thousand Oaks, California, said he could see the smoke from many kilometres away as he fled the fires. (Submitted by Laurent Eyquem)

With files from CBC Montreal's Homerun