Safety ques­tions still swirl around Par­adise

A year af­ter town burned, a slow re­build­ing is on

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD - By Don Thomp­son

PAR­ADISE, Calif. — There was “no way in hell” Vic­to­ria Sin­claire was re­build­ing in Par­adise.

She’d thought she was go­ing to die dur­ing the six hours it took her to es­cape the dead­li­est and most de­struc­tive wild­fire in Cal­i­for­nia his­tory.

Sin­claire and tens of thou­sands of oth­ers in nearby com­mu­ni­ties fled the in­ferno that killed 85 peo­ple and scorched about 19,000 homes, busi­nesses and other build­ings on Nov. 8, 2018.

De­spite her vow to stay away, Sin­claire’s fam­ily was one of the first to re­build, brav­ing the en­dur­ing threat of wild­fires, and now, re­peated power out­ages as the na­tion’s largest util­ity tries to pre­vent its equip­ment from spark­ing blazes on windy days like it did in Par­adise a year ago.

Weeks af­ter the wild­fire, Sin­claire had an epiphany. She re­turned to the ru­ins of her home and felt more at peace than any time since the flee­ing the flames, even as she stood in the ashes of her liv­ing room.

“I want peo­ple to see that Par­adise is a place to re­turn home to,” Sin­claire said. “The scars run deep here, but so do the roots that help it grow.”

“Re­build­ing the Ridge” is a ral­ly­ing cry on signs around town, evok­ing the beauty and peril of re­build­ing on a wind-swept jut of land pok­ing out of the Sierra Ne­vada and beg­ging the ques­tion: Will the resur­gent com­mu­nity be safer this time?

Sin­claire’s home is one of just nine that have been re­built, but the town is on track to is­sue 500 build­ing per­mits by year’s end.

About 3,000 peo­ple have re­turned, but the town is now largely pop­u­lated with travel trail­ers. They’re parked on lots scraped clean of more than 3.66 mil­lion tons of charred and toxic de­bris, the equiv­a­lent of four Golden Gate bridges or twice the ton­nage that was re­moved from the World Trade Cen­ter site.

“When you drive around, you don’t see all the car­casses any­more of the houses and the cars,” town coun­cil­man Michael Zuc­co­l­illo said. “You’d hear ham­mers and chain saws and nail guns.”

Wild­fire mit­i­ga­tion con­sul­tant Zeke Lun­der fears Par­adise is set­ting it­self up for an­other dis­as­ter.

“As we saw in the Camp Fire, the town’s re­ally well set up to kill peo­ple with wild­fire,” said Lun­der, who lives in nearby Chico.

The five routes out of town quickly be­came clogged with traf­fic, aban­doned ve­hi­cles and downed power poles dur­ing the blaze. Half the town’s roads are pri­vately owned, many of them nar­row, dead-end tracks lead­ing through small, densely forested lots.

To make the town safe, of­fi­cials would have to start fresh with a new grid of in­ter­con­nected streets and al­leys, spend mil­lions a year to keep brush and trees in check, and force home­own­ers to keep their prop­er­ties clear, Lun­der said.

“We’re not go­ing to keep fires from burn­ing through Par­adise, so what­ever they build up there should be some­thing that can sur­vive a wild­fire,” Lun­der said. “But just build­ing a bunch of wooden houses out in the brush, we al­ready saw what hap­pened.”

Par­adise of­fi­cials have taken steps to make the town more fire re­sis­tant as it re­builds but stopped short of the strict rules adopted by sev­eral fire-prone South­ern Cal­i­for­nia com­mu­ni­ties. They adopted only seven of 15 pro­posed fire safety stan­dards.

Coun­cil mem­bers re­jected a plan to ban com­bustible ma­te­ri­als within 5 feet of homes un­til it would al­low plants. Polic­ing peo­ple’s plants, Zuc­co­l­illo said, would “kind of go against the fab­ric of our town. We­don’t want big govern­ment telling us what to do.”

Im­prov­ing evac­u­a­tion routes and emer­gency warn­ings are still un­der con­sid­er­a­tion, while city lead­ers last month re­quired peo­ple to re­move haz­ardous trees that could fall into a pub­lic right of way.

Cal­i­for­nia’s grow­ing home­less­ness cri­sis is one rea­son there is lit­tle talk of pro­hibit­ing con­struc­tion in high-risk ar­eas like Par­adise. Ru­ral ar­eas are gen­er­ally more af­ford­able than cities like San Francisco and Los An­ge­les, which face their own dan­gers from earth­quakes, fires and ris­ing oceans.

More than 2.7 mil­lion Cal­i­for­ni­ans live in ar­eas at very high risk for wild­fires, ac­cord­ing to an As­so­ci­ated Press anal­y­sis of cen­sus data and state fire maps. Nearly 180 cities and towns are in the very high haz­ard ar­eas.

Tim­o­thy In­gals­bee, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Fire­fight­ers United for Safety, Ethics and Ecol­ogy, said clear­ing trees is usu­ally coun­ter­pro­duc­tive be­cause the weeds and brush that grow back in open ar­eas are more flammable than the ma­ture trees they re­place.

“We have the tech­nol­ogy and the knowhow to build homes that are less flammable. We have no abil­ity to do that to the forests,” he said.

RICH PE­DRON­CELLI/AP

Vic­to­ria Sin­claire holds her cat Toby, who sur­vived the Camp Fire, as her dog Joey looks on in the kitchen of her re­cently re­built home Tues­day in Par­adise, Calif.

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