PAR­ADISE

The Tribune (SLO) (Sunday) - - From Page One -

With about 27,000 res­i­dents, the town also went through the un­usual ex­er­cise of hold­ing mock evac­u­a­tions dur­ing morn­ing rush hour, clos­ing some streets and turn­ing a ma­jor two-way road into one way to let peo­ple prac­tice get­ting out fast.

Even with that plan­ning, Par­adise was no match for the Camp Fire.

“The fire moved so quickly, we had to evac­u­ate the en­tire town (at once),” said Mayor Jody Jones.

The most de­struc­tive wild­fire in Cal­i­for­nia his­tory raced through this week, lay­ing waste to the evac­u­a­tion plan along with nearly ev­ery home and busi­ness. Jones es­ti­mated that 80 to 90 per­cent of homes were de­stroyed; Cal Fire has placed the toll at more than 6,400 homes and 260 busi­nesses. By com­par­i­son, last year’s Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa – pre­vi­ously the most de­struc­tive blaze in state his­tory – lev­eled 5,636 struc­tures.

Jones and the four other mem­bers of the town coun­cil lost their houses. Two of the three gro­cery stores in town burned to the ground. Cars were flipped over and twisted by the heat.

On Fri­day, the day af­ter the fire, there was an eerie si­lence in Par­adise, bro­ken only by the sound of birds chirp­ing.

“It’s sim­i­lar to those neigh­bor­hoods in Santa Rosa that are just gone,” Jones said. “It burned through very quickly and very hot. The fire came through so fast, it burned streets of homes.”

Evac­u­a­tion routes turned into seas of ve­hi­cles dur­ing the height of the emer­gency, lead­ing fran­tic res­i­dents to aban­don cars and at­tempt to es­cape the fire’s ad­vance on foot.

“There were just a lot of peo­ple try­ing to leave at the same time,” Jones said.

At least 23 peo­ple have died, some in their ve­hi­cles as they tried to nav­i­gate through ex­plod­ing util­ity trans­form­ers and burn­ing trees, smoke likely too thick to see be­yond their wind­shields. Hun­dreds of ve­hi­cles jammed onto Sky­way, the largest road lead­ing out of town to­ward the rel­a­tive safety of Chico.

“Hell was knock­ing on our door,” said Ian Franklin, who fled Thurs­day with his wife and 14month-old son.

Jones said town res­i­dents “have to be pre­pared” for news that the death toll will rise.

AC­KNOWL­EDGED RISKS

Bill Ste­wart, the codi­rec­tor of Berke­ley Forests, a wild­fire and for­est re­search depart­ment at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, said Par­adise had “about the most ad­vanced level of plan­ning I’ve heard of,” but the speed and fe­roc­ity of the fire was too much.

“It over­whelmed the town,” said Ste­wart.

As of Satur­day morn­ing, the Camp Fire had grown to 100,000 acres and was 20 per­cent con­tained. Cal Fire of­fi­cials warned that high winds ex­pected Satur­day night could cause it to spread fur­ther, po­ten­tially to­ward the city of Oroville.

Ste­wart said it ap­pears the Camp Fire moved faster than the Tubbs Fire, fu­eled by “ev­ery­one’s worse case sce­nario” of dry Novem­ber winds reach­ing high speeds — up to 50 miles per hour.

“This has been the worst night­mare, that at some point we would lose an en­tire town in half a day,” he said.

Sit­u­ated at the rim of the Sierra Ne­vada – 2,000 feet above the Cen­tral Val­ley floor – this Gold Rush-era com­mu­nity is sur­rounded by tall pines and steep canyons. Ev­ery­thing dries out in the summer and into the fall, es­pe­cially in years like this one when it hasn’t rained for months. High winds blow through town of­ten.

Par­adise has long been on the list of towns where the worst case sce­nario was a real pos­si­bil­ity. The canyons and thick forests are “what make Par­adise unique and give it a lot of charm and make peo­ple want to live there,” said Rick Carhart of Cal Fire’s Butte County unit. But it’s also the kind of to­pog­ra­phy that makes it dan­ger­ous.

“Those two things (the canyons and forests), com­bined with a whole lot of wind, it turned into I think what a lot of peo­ple feared might pos­si­bly hap­pen some­day,” Carhart said. “No mat­ter where a fire is, whether it’s on one side of town or the other, fire just nat­u­rally wants to run up hill and head right to­ward Par­adise.”

Butte County pub­lic safety of­fi­cials have long ac­knowl­edged the risks fac­ing Par­adise.

All but a hand­ful of the town’s 9,900 homes were in ar­eas that Cal Fire de­ter­mined were fac­ing a very high wild­fire threat, ac­cord­ing to a 2013 hazard mit­i­ga­tion plan re­leased by Butte County. More than two dozen day care cen­ters, four fire sta­tions and eight schools were also in that zone. The to­tal value of build­ings in the very high sever­ity zone was es­ti­mated at $ 1.2 bil­lion.

The 2013 hazard plan also de­ter­mined that evac­u­at­ing peo­ple from the town dur­ing a wild­fire – es­pe­cially el­derly res­i­dents – “can be chal­leng­ing due to lim­ited egress avail­abil­ity of roads.”

Sacra­mento Bee re­porter Benjy Egel con­trib­uted to this re­port.

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