As It Happens

Paradise, Calif., mayor says it's 'a miracle' people escaped the fire that gutted her town

Paradise, Calif., Mayor Jody Jones lost her home to the devastating wildfires ripping through the state — as did the vast majority of the town's residents.

Mayor Jody Jones says she lost her home to the raging California fires — as did most of her constituents

Krystin Harvey, left, comforts her daughter Araya Cipollini at the remains of their home burned in Paradise, Calif. (John Locher/The Associated Press)
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Paradise, Calif., Mayor Jody Jones lost her home to the devastating wildfires ripping through the state — as did the vast majority of the town's residents.

At least 31 people have died and hundreds remain unaccounted for in the California wildfires, which reduced the northern town of Paradise, population 27,000, to a smoking ruin.

Jones, who fled town on busy highway surrounded by flames, says it's "a miracle" that so many people got out alive. She has since been back to survey the immense damage. 

Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

What does Paradise look like right now?

It's pretty devastated.

About 90 per cent of the homes are burned to the foundation [and] about 50 per cent of the businesses.

We still have some very key things left. We have our town hall, our high school, our hospital, our police department, some grocery stores ... the hardware store — they're all still there.

And so when you saw that mix of things, but so much devastation, what was it like for you?

It's overwhelming. I have to admit that. It's not something you ever think is going to happen to you.

A view of homes destroyed by the fire in Paradise on Sunday. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

And what about yourself? Have you lost your home?

Oh yes, the entire town council lost their homes. Half of our police officers have lost their homes. Ninety per cent of the people.

I'm so sorry. 

Thank you. 

We were speaking with a resident of Paradise last week.  And she was trying to get out, like so many others, and she had a newborn baby, a five-month-old baby with her. And the story she told of that escape is just harrowing. 

It very scary. It was. I was in the north end of town running errands and I couldn't get home so I was not with my husband. It was very scary. 

Firefighters at work battling flames Paradise on Friday. The mayor says 90 per cent of the town's homes were lost to the fire. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Was your community prepared for a fire like this?

I don't know that any community could be prepared for a fire like that.

We were prepared for fire. We've had fire before. We had a very robust evacuation plan that we had practiced and used in the past.

But when you have your entire town evacuated at the same time — not one zone or two zones, but the entire town — there isn't any way that your transportation infrastructure can handle that. 

[The Paradise woman we interviewed Friday] was describing how quickly that fire was moving. I mean, others were saying it was moving about the length of a football field every second. She was describing herself just that it was just spontaneously springing up. Smoke came in so quickly. 

The fire chief said it's like you had 100 matches in your hand and you just spread them all around town all at the same time.

Melted bottles are seen at a liquor store in Paradise. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

When you evacuated, what can you tell us about how you were able to get out and what happened?

Both sides of the road were burning as you drove by. It was hot enough you could feel the heat in the car.

As I said, it was scary. If we hadn't practiced our evacuation plan, if we had not had one and if our people did not know what to do, we would not have gotten everybody out.

It's a miracle that we got all the people out that we did. And I know some people were caught. Some people refused to leave. But for the most part, we got our citizens out.

As you know, they're trying to find out who didn't get out. There's not much left of people and they're trying to identify with bone and bone fragments. Do you think the families will get the answers they are waiting for?

Eventually, yes. I know the sheriff has a number of teams up there working on that. It's very difficult.

Flames consume a Kentucky Fried Chicken as the Camp Fire tears through Paradise on Thursday. (Noah Berger/The Associated Press)

What comfort do you have for people who survived that fire?

I'm taking my comfort from my faith in God and from the community that I know that we have, and the people who are looking to the future and rebuilding.

And do you have a sense that Paradise will come back from this?

Yes, absolutely. 

And when do you think you'll be able to start that difficult task?

Well, the debris removal is the first step and it's started already.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Associated Press. Produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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