Yorkshireman tells how he and his family fled ravaging wildfires in California with minutes to spare

Ben Colbeck, wife Jessica and daughter Penelope.
Ben Colbeck, wife Jessica and daughter Penelope.
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The first victims of the US wildfires have been named by the authorities as a Yorkshire man told how he fled his Californian home with his family as flames took hold at unprecedented speed.

Ben Colbeck, his American wife Jessica, 30, their six month old baby daughter Penelope and the family dog piled into the car with only the clothes they were wearing just minutes before their home in the town of Paradise was burned to the ground.

The remains of their house.

The remains of their house.

He said the warning systems and news channels simply couldn’t keep up with the pace of the unfolding disaster which has devastated the area since Thursday.

Mr Colbeck, 29, who was born in Thirsk and also lived in York before emigrating eight years ago, said: “We usually get two warnings. One is start packing and one is just leave. Failing that police come along the street with speakers. This spread so fast that none of that happened.

“We usually get up at 6am or 7am but we had slept in because the sky was totally black. When we woke up my phone was blowing up with texts. We put the news on for updates but it was not quick enough.”

The musician and teacher said he was still calm when he went outside to turn the gas off (normal practice during wildfires) but realised the severity of the situation when the sky was “raining ash” and it was singeing his hair.

He said: “Cars were bolting down the street and I thought we have to go now. I got my wife, kid and my dog and got in the car.”

As the near 30,000 other residents of the town fled along mountain roads, traffic was backed up and he said friends just ten minutes behind him were driving through flames as they made their escape from the inferno.

The family drove for two and a half hours to the safety of a relative’s house in the town of Truckee, Nevada.

Residents have been given online maps for each of the houses in Paradise and Mr Colbeck found out earlier this week that everything they had, including the music studio attached to his house from where he worked has been razed to the ground.

Ben’s sister, Emily Lopez Morino has since started a funding campaign to help the family re-build their lives. A target of £10,000 already has almost £9,000 within a few days.

Mr Colbeck added: “The first day or two we were in a daze. We were so lucky to get out and there are people in a lot worse situation than us, but now is the worst because it is day to day and we don’t have a plan.”

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea’s office has identified four of the victims and publicly named three.

Ernest Foss, a 63-year-old musician who once taught lessons, Carl Wiley, 77, who refurbished tyres for Michelin, and Jesus Fernandez, aged 48 and known as Zeus, who was described as a loving father and loyal friend, were identified as being among 48 people who perished in the blaze.

The search for the dead was drawing on portable devices that can identify someone’s genetic material in a couple of hours, rather than days or weeks, in the light of 9/11.