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Paradise Lost: Reflections on the Camp Fire

Camp Fire ruins, Paradise, California. Photo: George Wuerthner.

I just visited the town of Paradise located on the slopes of the Cascade Range near Chico, California. The Camp Fire burned through Paradise last November (2018) killing 87 people, mostly older residents. Plus destroying 14000 homes and another 4800 structures (like commercial buildings). Another 637 structures were “damaged” bringing the total estimate by CAL FIRE of 19,336 structures destroyed or damaged. At least five public schools were ruined, part of a hospital, several churches among other destruction.

The Camp Fire is the deadliest wildfire in California history and one of the deadliest in the United States.  By the time the fire was contained, it had burned an area of 153,336 acres.

Before the fire, Paradise was home to 27,000 people.  Within six hours of the first ignition, some 90-95% (over 18800 structures) of the buildings in Paradise and the nearby community of Concow were reduced to rubble.

Will Paradise be rebuilt? Right now, six months later, there is still no city water available. No schools are open. Only a few gas stations and food stores which escaped the blaze are open. Additionally, the soil in many of the burned sites is loaded with toxic materials from the melted metal, plastics, and other building substances. Before one can rebuild, one must decontaminate the soils.

Indeed, the Camp Fire is the largest hazardous material cleanup site in the state of California.

Due to the significant risk to public health, in early February 2019, FEMA announced that ” health and safety hazards” posed an immediate threat to citizens and outlawed residents from living in recreational vehicles on their properties with structures burned during the Camp Fire.

To me visiting Paradise was like coming to a war zone with burned out foundations, and few people.  About the only individuals I saw were people wearing yellow-orange safety vests doing toxic waste removal or cutting down hazard trees.

And something that other vulnerable western communities built in the woods (like Bend, Oregon, West Yellowstone, Montana, Whitefish Montana, Sandpoint, Idaho or McCall Idaho) must consider is how do you pay for your community rebuild and operations when most of your properties are gone, and there are essentially no property taxes available.

One cannot imagine how complete the destruction from this blaze is until you have seen it firsthand.

To me one of the most remarkable features of standing on the main street of the town in the aftermath of the blaze were the standing green trees. If you looked down a highway or street, it often was a tunnel through live forest, but underneath those trees there were no standing houses—just burned out foundations. And of the trees that were burnt, most were facing the foundations indicating that it was the house fire, not a wildfire, that scorched them or killed them.

Even more stunning to me was to see entire commercial centers like a shopping mall or church completely burned to the ground with nothing but twisted steel girders and debris to show where once large buildings once stood. I used to believe if there was significant “blacktop” like a large parking lot surrounding buildings, they would survive a fire—the Camp Fire proved my assumptions were incorrect.

FUEL REDUCTIONS FAILED

The second important point is that the area surrounding Paradise had experienced extensive “fuel reductions” of one sort or another. Most timber industry and logging proponents, as well as politicians from California’s governor Newsom (as well as most other politicians across the West) to President Trump,  argue that “fuel reductions,” i.e., logging (and in the case of Trump more raking) would preclude large fires.

Yet it is climate/weather with extreme conditions of drought, low humidity, high temps and high winds, not fuels, that is responsible for all large wildfires. I have not seen a single exception.

Topography and fuels do influence blazes, but if you don’t have the right weather conditions, ignitions do not blow up into huge conflagrations.

In the case of Paradise, as well as in many other large fires I’ve visited over the years, “fuel reductions” failed in the face of “extreme fire weather.” In a sense, the continued advocacy for “fuel reductions” by various public agencies, forestry schools, collaboratives, and the like is delusional, and borders on maleficence since it lulls communities into believing if they only cut enough trees and brush, they won’t have to worry about wildfire.

For instance, the lands which the Camp Fire charred burned through private Sierra Pacific lands where there had been extensive clearcuts and post-fire logging. On US Forest Service lands, there had been additional logging and some “hazardous fuel reductions” meaning tree thinning.  Finally, in the last ten years, there had been two other significant wildfires that also “reduced” fuels.  To see a map of past logging in relation to the community go here.   For photos of past logging go here.

FACTORS THAT LED TO BLAZE

From the evidence, it appears that these “fuel reductions” rather than slowing the blaze, may have contributed to more rapid movement. How can that be?

The answer has to do with what burns in a forest fire. It is not large trees or even snags from past blazes that are consumed, but the “flashy” fuels like grass, shrubs, tree needles and the like. The previous fuel reductions had increased the abundance of fine fuels and opened the forest to greater wind penetration and drying.

WEATHER FACTORS

The fire started as a result of an outage of a high voltage line owned and operated by Pacific Gas and Electric power lines near the Feather River Canyon.  At the time, winds were blowing up to 25-30 miles per hour with gusts up to 60 miles per hour or more.  With the winds pushing the flames, at one time, the fire was moving as rapidly as 80 acres per minute (a football field is about one acre). Within two hours of ignition, the fire had burned six miles and into the edge of Paradise.

California was experiencing one of the worst droughts in recent history, so forest and brush fields were already exceedingly dry. These downslope winds decompressed so they could hold more moisture, hence were “drying” winds. Humidity dropped to 10%.

Winds blew embers miles ahead of the burning fire front called “spotting,” literally creating dozens of new fires. Once a few homes were ignited, they became new sources of burning debris transported by the wind that in domino effect set off new blazes. With high winds, the flames were pushed horizontal instead of vertical, which may explain why so many trees remained unimpacted by the fire, while the next house or structure in line would be ignited.

Despite the efforts of 5,596 firefighters, 622 engines, 75 water tenders, 101 fire crews, 103 bulldozers, and 24 helicopters, what put out the blaze was rain on November 21st.

FACTORS THAT LED TO DEATHS

Beyond the fact that Paradise is built in the forest or what is known as the Wildlands Urban Interface, several other factors contributed to the death total.

Paradise lies on a plateau surrounded by deep canyons. There are only a few major roads that offer an exit from the plateau. Evacuation routes were limited. During the fire, cars were abandoned blocking these roads and/or slowing other vehicles trying to escape the blaze. In fact, before the blaze, the town had implemented some “traffic slowing” measures like reduced lanes on major thoroughfares to reduce the speed of vehicles.

The state of California had implemented a new fee on property owners to fund fire preparedness measures such as secondary evacuation routes. However, Republican lawmakers and property owners were successful in repealing the fee in 2017.

The fire began at 6:30 Am, and within 20 minutes of ignition, the fire had reached the community of Concow. (One hears all the time that if we only put out fires quickly, we would not have large blazes—but most large wind-driven blazes spread so rapidly, immediate suppression is impossible).  By 8 AM, the fire had reached Paradise. Due to the rapid-fire spread, firefighters did not even attempt to slow the blaze; instead all resources were focused on getting residents out alive.

Terrified residents tried desperately to evacuate in smoke and flames, some abandoned their cars, blocking the escape routes until bulldozers could arrive to push them off the road.  With burning buildings all around and along highways, many did not know where to go. Emergency communications failed because, within a few hours, 17 cell towers were inoperable, making communications difficult. What is remarkable is how few people died given the circumstances.

SOLUTIONS?

The climate/weather factors that led to the Camp Fire are undeniable. Severe drought, combined with higher temperatures and of course wind events, are part of the changing climate pattern attributed to climate change.  There will undoubtedly be future “Paradises” across the West.

What I’ve seen is the focus on fuel reductions, particularly those occurring far from communities create a sense of complacency in communities. The average person thinks if we only log enough forest, do enough prescribed burning; large wildfires will be prevented. The scientific evidence for this is limited. Indeed, numerous studies conclude under “extreme fire weather” most fuel treatments fail, in part, because spotting of embers jumps all barriers. When you have situations like the Eagle Creek fire that jumped the complete absence of any fuels in the Columbia River or the Carr Fire that blew across the Sacramento River, it’s hard to argue that fuel reductions are a solution.

What does seem to work, to the degree that anything works, is efforts to reduce the flammability of homes. Studies by Dr. Jack Cohen and others have demonstrated that wooden walls require continuous heating to ignite. Most fast-moving wildfires like the Camp Fire do not linger long enough to ignite a wall. But if there are other flammable materials nearby whether it is firewood piled next to a house or a gutter full of pine needles and leaves, then the house is vulnerable to flames.

That is why working from the home outward is the only viable solution.

And one must think outside of the box. For instance, many pet owners have “doggie doors” that can swing open in a wind-driven blaze to allow embers into a home. Or the vinyl that holds “thermal” window glass can melt allowing flames to enter a home.

The second lesson of the Camp Fire and others that I have visited is that these fire reduction efforts must be made on a community-wide basis. They cannot be voluntary. Even if you remove the pine needles from your roof or put a girdle of gravel surrounding the foundation of your home, your place may still burn to the ground if your neighbor’s home catches fire. Structure fires put out more heat and more embers than a wildfire.

The third lesson is that communities must plan in advance for emergency evacuations. There must be a warning system in place that warns residents that a fire may be approaching. Keep in mind many of these larger fires had started when there was no lightning or other natural factors to signal a fire could start. Setting up a system of public alarms like the old air raid sirens that were used during the Cold War to alert residents of a possible air attack could be one answer. And as in Paradise, you cannot assume that electricity and things like cell phones will be working. So alternative means of communication must be set up—in advance.

Escape routes must be designated, and practice by community officials should be implemented. Can you get all the residents in Bend Oregon across the six bridges that cross the Deschutes River in one hour? I don’t think so.

You must also consider how the circumstances of the town might affect evacuations. Many communities, including where I live in Bend, as well as others mentioned like West Yellowstone, Montana, Sandpoint, Idaho, McCall Idaho, Whitefish, Montana, and so on are “tourist” towns. With thick smoke and people unfamiliar with local roads and routes, confusion about where to go for evaluation could be problematic.

Long term, the ultimate cure is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It should be pointed out that logging forests release far more GHG than a wildfire. For instance, logging is the most significant source of GHG emissions in Oregon. So keeping carbon in the forest just as keeping fossil fuels in the ground is a long term and practical means of helping to cope with climate change.

None of us wants to see a repeat of Paradise. But as long as politicians and others with a vested financial interest in logging/thinning that includes forestry professors, foresters, timber companies, and others continue to harp on “fuel reductions” as the cure, we will not see a significant reduction in death and home losses.

More articles by:

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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