When the Camp Fire swept through the town of Paradise last week, tens of thousands of people had to flee from their homes.
Among them was Butte County Supervisor Doug Teeter. He grew up in Butte County, and watched the home his grandfather built become engulfed in flames as he barely made it out with his life.
KQED spoke to Supervisor Teeter about how he and the community of Paradise are working to recover from the tragedy.
A portion of the interview is included below and edited for clarity. Listen to the full conversation by pressing "play" above.
Where were you when the fire hit?
I was at home, and my wife was returning after dropping off the kids from school, and that's when I got the notification that there was a mandatory evacuation in my area. She left first, and I started discussing with neighbors who wanted to stay behind, and trying to convince them to leave. By the time I got on the road it was absolute gridlock, so I didn't get too far away from my house and ended up getting stuck on the road.
I actually abandoned my car. Pretty soon after that, when I realized the flames were visible, [I thought] I better get back in someone's car. So I jumped into someone else's car, and we ultimately made it by hunkering down in a field. And at that point, I saw that my house was in flames and knew it was going to be lost.
The days since must have been difficult for you and other officials. Is it hard to be working, to be helping lead your community, when you've lost your own home?
Yeah, it's kind of an understatement. And I think all the elected [officials] are powering on, and pretty much all of us lost homes.
I lived in a home that was built by my grandfather, and so it really pains me to lose the last presence of my grandparents, because it was their home. But I'm not super materialistic, so losing stuff wasn't a big deal to me. I really value just making it out of there alive and still am really happy about that. And then just absorbing myself in the demands of trying to help others understand the situation they're in. Obviously, I can't speak for other elected [officials], but I see that they're trying to do the same thing and just get the work done and grieve when our people are happy.
What's next for the community? With 90 percent of Paradise burned, do you rebuild?
I hope so. As a local leader, I plan on rebuilding. But right now we're still fighting active fire. You can't really move forward yet.
But let's just say we're ready to go into rebuild mode. A big concern is [that] our water is provided by a special district. There's no one living there, so who's going to pay the bills? The expenses of delivering water for a great number of people when there's only a few people there? It's going to be a huge economic loss for them. Same with the town. If no one moves back, then the town's not going to get sales tax. So they're not going to be able to pay for the personnel and the expenses that they incur. And I think that's the scariest thing, that if people don't commit to rebuilding, it's going to make it really hard for these municipalities in special districts to provide the services that they need to provide to make it amenable for rebuilding.
There are a lot of mobile homes. And so now those things are gone. The elderly people that used to call this place home, and spend their retirement dollars and recreate, and kind of make it a really great place to retire — that's all changed because of the fire. And who's going to come back?
I'm hoping retirees that want to leave the high cost of these large urban centers will go, "Wow, here's a place that had a horrific tragedy, but now is desiring a kind of phoenix from the ash."
Kind of the same thing that was in the '60s and '70s. It's going to be a great place to retire. It's going to be a great place to be a bedroom community for Chico. We could create a really nice downtown. We're 26,000 people that don't have a sewer system. It's all in septic. And without more people coming here to call Paradise home and enjoy the recreation that we offer -- like Lake Oroville, Butte Creek Canyon up in the mountains, Lassen Park -- it's just not going to survive.
So I hope, I hope they can see the diamond in the rough that it would be for them.
It sounds like despite this tragedy, you're hopeful.
Oh, darn right! You know, I had a career as a mechanical engineer. I eventually called Mountain View my home, and I lived there for 13 years. And after a while, it's just like, "Wow, why am I dealing with this traffic?"
And it was kind of shocking, I never thought I'd move back home. I never had being a politician, supervisor, on my mind, ever. But you see what a great place this is, and we're only 3½ to four hours from the Bay Area. Less than two hours from Sacramento. And we've got this great community, a college, and you get to go in the mountains and fish and relax. But right now, it's really cool. And I hope people can see that and that they would want to stay and rebuild.
But I get it — people have to have jobs. We just lost pretty much every job that parents had except a few. And that's going to be the challenge. So, you know, open your eyes to what this tragedy is bringing to the masses. And it stinks to be number one [the most destructive wildfire in state history]. But, you know, it's definitely a marketing opportunity for rebuilding.