Learning from the Camp Fire Six Months On

California’s deadliest wildfire holds important lessons for communities across the West as we approach a new fire season.

This spring, I visited the town of Paradise, located on the slopes of the Cascade Range near Chico, California. The Camp Fire burned through Paradise last November killing 87 people, mostly older residents. The fire also destroyed some 14,000 homes and another 4,800 structures like commercial buildings, schools, and churches. Another 637 structures were “damaged,” according to California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) estimates, meaning more than 19,000 buildings were lost or damaged in the fire. In total, 90 to 95 percent of all structures in Paradise and the nearby community of Concow were destroyed — within six hours of the first ignition.

photo of camp fire
The Camp Fire killed 87 people, burned more than 150,000 acres, and destroyed more than 19,000 buildings. Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead.

The Camp Fire was 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 153,336 acres

It’s been more than six months since the fire, and there is still no city water available. It may be two to three years before the water system is deemed safe to drink. No schools are open. Only a few gas stations and food stores that escaped the blaze are operating. Additionally, the soil in many of the burned sites is loaded with toxic materials from the melted metal, plastics, and other building materials. Before rebuilding, the soil must be decontaminated.

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 those living in recreational vehicles on their burned properties.

To me visiting Paradise was like coming to a war zone. One cannot imagine how complete the destruction from this blaze is until you have seen it firsthand. About the only individuals I saw were people wearing hazmat outfits doing toxic waste removal or yellow-orange safety vests cutting down hazard trees.

What stood out the most several months after the blaze were the standing green trees all around. Looking down the highway or street around town, it often was a tunnel through live forest, but underneath those trees there were no standing houses — just burned out foundations. Those trees that were burned were next to remains of destroyed houses, indicating that it was the burning houses that scorched them or killed them.

photo of camp fire
A shopping mall destroyed by the camp fire. Photo by George Wuerthner.

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 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.

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The idea that “blacktop” areas don’t burn isn’t the only incorrect assumption surrounding fires. The forests around Paradise had experienced extensive "fuel reductions" of one sort or another prior to the fire. Most timber industry and logging proponents, as well as politicians from California's governor Newsom to President Trump, argue that "fuel reductions," i.e., logging, prevents large forest fires.

This isn’t true. It is climate/weather with extreme conditions of drought, low humidity, high temperatures, and high winds — not fuels — that are 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, 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. 

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.

Of course, logging wasn’t the only contributor. 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 had reached 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, which allows “more space” so they could hold more moisture, hence they became “drying” winds. Humidity dropped to 10 percent.

Winds blew embers miles ahead of the burning fire front (called "spotting"), literally creating dozens of new fires where the embers landed. Once a few homes were ignited, they became new sources of burning debris that in domino effect set off new blazes. With high winds, the flames were pushed horizontally instead of vertically, 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 best efforts of 5,596 firefighters from 101 fire crews, 622 fire engines, 75 water tenders, 103 bulldozers, and 24 helicopters, what put out the blaze was rain on November 21.

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Beyond the fact that Paradise is built in the forest — or in what is known as the Wildlands-Urban Interface — where wildfires are more likely, several other factors contributed to the death total.

One factor was how quickly the fire spread. The fire began at 6:30 a.m., and within 20 minutes of ignition, 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 that immediate suppression is impossible).  By 8 a.m., the fire had reached Paradise. Due to the rapid spread of the blaze, firefighters did not even attempt to slow it — instead all resources were focused on getting residents out alive. 

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. 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.

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, which meant that in Paradise, at least, such routes were never developed.

What is remarkable is how few people died given the circumstances.

***

Severe drought, combined with higher temperatures and of course wind events, are part of the changing weather patterns attributed to climate change.  There will undoubtedly be future "Paradises" across the West. So what can we learn from Paradise, and how can we reduce wildfire risks?

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 and do enough prescribed burning, large wildfires will be prevented. The scientific evidence for this is limited. Indeed, numerous studies conclude that under "extreme fire weather," most fuel treatments fail, in part, because spotting embers jump all fire 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 does, 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 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 to fireproof homes, as much as possible, is the only viable solution. Homeowners must consider everything from the building materials they use, to the brush on their property, to the “doggie doors” that can swing open in a wind-driven blaze to allow embers into a home.

photo of camp fire
In Paradise, many of the trees were left standing around where homes burned. Photo by George Wuerthner.

What’s more, 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 house may still burn to the ground if your neighbor's home catches fire.

Another lesson is that communities must plan in advance for emergency evacuations. There must be a system in place that warns residents that a fire may be approaching. 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 community officials should practice implementing emergency plans. 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. Plans must be tested to ensure they are practical.

It’s also essential to consider how the circumstances of the town might affect evacuations. Many communities, including where I live in Bend, as well as others urban-wildland interface towns like West Yellowstone, Montana, Sandpoint, Idaho, and Whitefish, Montana, are “tourist” towns. People unfamiliar with local roads and routes may be especially confused about how to evacuate.

Long term, one of the primary solutions is to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to mitigate global warming. It should be pointed out that logging forests release far more GHG than a wildfire. In places like Oregon, logging is the most significant source of GHG emissions.

None of us wants to see a repeat of Paradise. But as long as those with a vested financial interest in logging/thinning — including forestry professors, foresters, timber companies, and others — continue to harp on "fuel reductions" as the cure, we will not see a significant reduction in wildfire, or the associated loss of life and property.  

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