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 85 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 to 19,336 structures destroyed or damaged. At least five public schools were ruined, part of a hospital, and several churches, among other losses.
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 and it may be two to three years before the water system is deemed safe to drink. https://www.mynspr.org/post/your-questions-answered-what-are-current-water-conditions-paradise-when-can-we-move-home#stream/0 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 burned properties with structures.
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.
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: 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, 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 malfeasance 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 https://www.google.com/search?q=Map+of+Camp+Fire+and+past+logging&rlz=1C1GGRV_enUS752US752&tbm=isch&source=iu&ictx=1&fir=YOMaUx8Vfo8aKM%253A%252CFNJRPIAUZ_ejDM%252C_&vet=1&usg=AI4_-kQkZLBd7xalED2HmAaZ7AcFfQ6fFw&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjWgYaqwLThAhUCiVQKHepmCBIQ9QEwAHoECAkQBA#imgrc=YOMaUx8Vfo8aKM: For photos of past logging go here http://johnmuirproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/JMPCampFirePhotoMemo.pdf
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.
The fire started as a result of an outage of a high voltage line owned and operated by Pacific Gas and Electric near the Feather River Canyon. At the time, winds were blowing up to 25-30 miles per hour with gusts up to 60 miles or more per hour. 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 they became “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.
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 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. 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 embers jump 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. https://assets.takeshape.io/1f1d0876-be74-4b33-99c8-6ac93f1d70db/dev/18cecbdc-20ad-4ac8-aab2-05b60f5ff064/LDF%2C%20A%20New%20Direction%20for%20California%20Wildfire%20Policy%2020190211.pdf
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 evacuation could be problematic.
Long term, the ultimate cure is to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) 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.
George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology
21 Responses to Paradise Lost
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A gentle correction: Shouldn’t you have the word NOT in the last sentence?
A good read about details that are not in news reports.
I agree with your basic premise and I applaud your work educating people and politicians about the “house out” approach to preventing loss from fires, but I have a hard time believing that “…logging forests release far more GHG than a wildfire.” A fire takes the stored carbon in a forest and puts it directly into the atmosphere. What am I missing here?
Not all the stored carbon in a forest is released in a fire. In fact most is retained as snags. The large majority of the biomass is left behind and it’s mostly the needles (leaves) that are burned. This was very visible in Yellowstone after ’88 and is still partly visible today. That’s why logging an area after a fire is a problem. As George says many of the trees survived this fire, most structures did not.
That makes sense. Thanks.
I would add that any snags that are left after a fire provide many opportunities for lots of things in the ecosystem. Two quick examples: Many ants in the West nest in dead logs, along comes a bear, rips up the log and eats the ants. Very common in Yellowstone, Sierra Nevada, and other ecosystems of the West. 2nd example: cavity nesting birds love dead, standing snags to make their homes, it’s way easier to make a hole in dead wood and it won’t ooze sap. Great place to see this is the next few years, anywhere in the West, after it’s been burned.
Fires are crucial in the West. Just not too fun in your neighborhood.
Thanks for your outstanding summary of the problems and solution concerning fire in the West. You sum it up nicely when you say we need political will to fix this deadly issue.
Your facts are not completely accurate. The fire in Redding CA was the Carr fire. The fire around and in Paradise CA was the Camp fire. Paradise is in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Thanks for your commentaries they are interesting and insightful.
He says Paradise, CA. and Camp Fire over and over again in this article. He visited Paradise, CA. and was reporting on the Camp Fire. He doesn’t even mention Redding or the Carr fire. But, yes, Paradise, CA. is in the Northern Sierra Nevada.
correction: he does mention the Carr once towards the end and how it blew embers across the Sacramento River, sorry.
It’s just shockingly bad, and I am afraid with continued development into forest, it will only get worse. How can it be stopped?
Maybe certain new construction building requirements?
The local governments are now allowing people to live in RVs on their lots while the cleanup continues; too many people were doing it anyway,having nowhere else to go. I visited Paradise in late May 2018: it gave me the willies: I knew it was going to burn. The city had a good system of fire zones so that the Sheriff’s department could tell people to evacuate from one zone or another, and it had worked well in smaller fires.The Camp Fire just moved too fast.Many people won’t return because the nearest supermarkets are now 15 miles away. Everything has to start over. A relative who lived there (and lost their house)has decided to rebuild after looking at real estate in other Sierra foothill communities. Came to the conclusion that all those other places WILL burn; Paradise has already burned and probably won’t burn again for another 20 years or so.
Excellent GW piece- echoing Mr Keeney, glad to see the word NOT added to last sentence. This article’s too good for that error!
Had a forest fire a few miles from where I live about 16 years ago. Burned 3 thousand acres of mountainous forest land and threatened a nearby community.
Walked part of the area right after the fire and it was a moonscape, dead standing trees and scorched earth.
Walked that area again this past summer and was amazed at how well it had come back. Still dead standing trees (and trees that had finally fallen over) but discovered many big pine trees that had made it through the fire.
So much new growth; small trees, bushes, native plants & grasses. Signs of wildlife everywhere.
I had seen some of the aftermath of Yellowstone’s fire, and it is true that nature can recover quickly.
However, I don’t like to read the term wilderness areas considered ‘laboratories’.
Where homes are built, it concerns me that now the soil has to be cleared of toxic chemicals, and I don’t think nature can recover from human-created toxins, nor the higher heat of the fires, as easily.
Even if wilderness does recover, fires like these are something we want to avoid, and/or let nature take her own course instead of our meddling and poisoning the landscape.
What about stronger building codes and development requirements for those who build in these sensitive areas?
And with California’s high and continually growing population, this is only going become worse and a continual threat.
I read that statistics show most of these fires are started by people – there needs to be better prevention illegal campfires, and penalties for firebugs, as well as education, and individual homeowners taking care.
I have photos we took at Yellowstone after that fire; the blackened snags and regrowth of understory. I’m glad I saw it.
My husband is from Northern California, and it has some of the most beautiful areas I have seen in this country. I consider it a home state, and I don’t like to see it destroyed. He has always said wildfire and mudslides are the nature of the place.
California’s deadly wildfires have a straightforward solution, experts say: stop building homes in places that are likely to burn—and make homes that already exist in those areas a whole lot tougher.
That approach, wildfire and climate policy experts are quick to add, would be expensive and unpopular, especially in a state with both a housing shortage and stunning wooded landscapes that people want to live in.
But as climate change causes more frequent and shocking blazes, they say anything less won’t make enough of a difference.
oops, I certainly messed that up. I tried to post a quote from the following article:
Another good article from George. I cannot improve on what George talked about but I will speak from my past experience in that area.
I lived in Shasta County CA for 27 years and noticed that solar radiation was getting more intense. For example in the late 80’s garden plants grew well outside without any protection from the sun but in later years blossoms etc dried up much faster. One could feel the intensity of sun increasing as well on our skin. In a nutshell plants had to be shaded to have successful gardens. There seemed to be a general agreement with neighbors and even government officials that solar radiation was intensifying. A number of California water districts attempted cloud seeding. Fires kept getting worse.
And then came what has come to be known as solar radiation management (SRM)-witness all those long dense, very long lasting, puffy trails in the sky. Several retired soils scientists that lived near Mount Shasta noticed them also and decided to test soils for various compounds. They found unusually high levels of aluminum. The aluminum levels could be dozens or even hundreds of times what they should be. Aluminum interferes with plant growth in several ways including desication of plant tissue.
It does appear that some agency is spreading additional aluminum compounds from the air under the cover of “solar radiation mgt) but it is also well known (with scientists at least) that naturally occurring aluminum in acidic forest soils causes problems with plant and tree growth after logging or/and intense fire. In other words reduction of organic matter in forest soils is a REAL FRICKING problem and if additional aluminum is being deposited from the air as well, we are looking at a kind of end time scenario.
A hell of lot more heat energy in the atmosphere and more drying accelerated by aluminum compounds and more fires like we have recently witnessed or even worse.
The negative effects of aluminum build up and global warming can be reduced by keeping organic matter in the forest.
So scientists like George and myself and quite a few others, including those in various forest experiment stations say- forest soils need MORE organic matter, not less. But the politicians and their corporate bosses cannot see beyond their noses and continue with policies that are decimating the planet. They have made a religion out of killing the planet one ecosystem at a time.
X-Files conspiracy? Maybe. Monsanto has in fact been developing aluminum resistant crops. Stupidity? No question.
We will be lucky (well maybe) if we survive another 12 years.
Excellent and thanks for writing this. For the past couple of years, I’ve been advocating calling them ‘wildfires’ and not forest fires. In California’s Sierra, all the large (>50k) catastrophic fires start in brush/oak/woodland. As you clearly point out, forest thinning and even, after a long enough interval, previous fire scars have no impact in slowing rate of spread. Also important ALL of those fires have occurred after 1996 — evidence of extreme weather predicted by climate change models.
I’d like to see a better analysis of what structures survived in Paradise and Santa Rosa and why (if there is a why — maybe nothing more than random luck).
Anyway, good work! We need more articles like this.