Cal­i­for­nia fire was a tragedy wait­ing to hap­pen

The Southern Berks News - - OPINION - — Chico En­ter­prise-Record, Dig­i­tal First Me­dia

“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.

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