California fire was a tragedy waiting to happen
“Nobody would have ever thought this could happen,” President Donald Trump said while touring the Camp Fire devastation last weekend.
That’s not true. The Camp Fire was inevitable. It is the event that so many dreaded for so long.
People prepared. Fire prevention officials planned. They drilled. They worked with homeowners. They invented fire-safe councils and Fire on the Ridge and sent fire prevention officials to schools via a program called Fire Pals. They raised money to keep fire lookouts open when the state said it wouldn’t.
Eventually, geography and topography proved to be the trap everyone thought it was.
Paradise and Magalia sit on top of a pine-studded ridge between several canyons. There are very few subdivisions. Instead, homes are built one at a time and tucked into trees. Fly over the area in a helicopter and those trees stand like matchsticks surrounding wellhidden homes.
Most cities have grass. Paradise’s predominant ground covering is pine needles — extremely flammable pine needles.
It wasn’t a well-planned city, but rather a village that grew into a city. The grid pattern of Paradise’s roads is haphazard. There are few arterials. Instead, there are two-lane roads without much connectivity. When people tried to evacuate in a flash, those bottlenecks were pronounced. Several people died in their cars, trapped by gridlock.
The large roads leading out of town aren’t large. Only Skyway is two lanes in both directions. Two summers ago, the town decided to turn Skyway from four lanes to two in the downtown area to “calm” traffic and make things more quaint. That couldn’t have helped the escape.
Clark, Pentz and Neal are rural roads, one lane in each direction. The town, in a lesson from the 2008 Humboldt Fire, learned that all lanes on Skyway, Clark and Pentz should be used for downhill traffic out of town in an evacuation. That’s what was done Nov. 8. It had to help, and still there was unprecedented loss of life.
The area around Paradise and Magalia burns every summer. Sometimes homes are destroyed. Usually, aggressive firefighting saves a disaster — and the town would again breathe a collective sigh of relief over escaping the big one.
People always warned it was coming. That’s why Congressman Wally Herger, Supervisor Kim Yamaguchi and others fought so hard early this century for the upper ridge escape route through Butte Meadows. The government purse strings were only loosened when enough politicians became convinced, after years of hammering by our local representatives that this was a disaster waiting to happen. The upper ridge escape route helped last week. Again, it wasn’t enough.
There were overt signs. Larry Mitchell, a retired former Paradise Post and Enterprise-Record reporter, recalls when a new fire chief was hired in the 1980s with strong credentials. He was immediately concerned about the fire danger. He took Mitchell on a tour of places that he said were especially dangerous. “He showed me places along the canyon edges where there were ravines full of brush and talked about how the fire could rush up them, like a chimney,” Mitchell wrote to us this week.
The chief didn’t last long. Mitchell said he got the impression one reason the man left was that he didn’t want to be fire chief of a town that could explode in flames.
With hounding, some residents did an excellent job of creating what firefighters call “defensive space” around their homes.
Others weren’t about to touch their pines. And they didn’t like anyone else doing it either. When PG&E went into Paradise earlier this year to cut trees that were near power lines, people complained. Pines were the very reason many people move to Paradise. They accepted the danger, despite warnings from so many people.
There are countless stories in our archives like this headline from 2003: “Firestorms not a matter of if, but when.” It’s not like our headline writer was prescient. That’s what everybody says up here, every year. And it finally happened. Now what? Paradise needs to decide how it will rebuild. The maze of streets doesn’t look so charming. The city’s forest doesn’t seem so quaint. The two-lane Skyway downtown looks like a trap.
Paradise will come back, but it can’t be what it once was. It shouldn’t be.