It was clear that the destroyed homes we saw were more flammable than the vegetation around them. On a tour of the devastation wrought by the Camp Fire in Butte County, my colleagues Ray Bizal and Tom Welle and I saw textbook cases of the impacts of embers, structure-to-structure ignition and wind-driven wildfire all through the communities of Paradise and Magalia.
We were part of a group invited by the Western Fire Chiefs Association, who coordinated a learning tour of the area along with CAL FIRE and the local fire chief on January 22. The goal was to include not only fire service professionals but also researchers, insurance industry representatives, and those involved in safety outreach and advocacy such as NFPA. We welcomed the rare opportunity to gain a first-hand local perspective on the event from CAL FIRE and local officials.
We observed that the wildfire was an equal opportunity destroyer, leveling high-end homes and more modest manufactured homes across the communities of Paradise and Magalia. According to the incident synopsis provided by the Western Fire Chiefs Association, one of the major considerations was “ember ignition, ember ignition, ember ignition. The Camp Fire was all about ember ignition. Paradise and surrounding area are in a Pine forest, the ground was littered with pine needles. Ponderosa Pines drop about 1/3 of their needles each year…even those who had ‘raked’ their yards had a new fuel bed due to the wind.” The synopsis also indicated that there were areas where urban conflagration took place – when one structure ignited it provided enough radiant heat and embers as it burned to ignite the next structure, and so on.
We received materials on the tour including wildfire preparedness brochures and guides developed by the Butte County Fire Safe Council, a long-active group that has promoted safety guidance including NFPA’s Firewise USA® program. While wildfire preparedness was embraced among many residents, the age, condition and proximity of homes to brush, trees and debris as well as to one another at the time of the fire made home destruction in this intense, fast-moving, wind-driven wildfire inevitable.
Paradise officials and residents also planned and practiced evacuations, but according to the fire chief, they had never contemplated having to evacuate the entire town simultaneously. His own parents were two of the people who made it out of danger through harrowing hours on the road, and who also lost their home. The fire’s destruction was typical in terms of unprepared homes that were more flammable than the vegetation surrounding them and often close enough to one another to cause an urban conflagration – both elements hallmarks of American wildland/urban interface fires. What stood out for me was the sheer size of the damage footprint. We drove miles and miles to encounter the same terrible story at every stop – unconsumed large trees and completely destroyed homes and vehicles.
The region has enormous challenges ahead in recovery. Even residents whose homes survived are still out of their homes due to benzene in the drinking water. Small business owners whose physical locations survived have few customers left in the area. The wholesale destruction of thousands of residences in a region where the housing market is already squeezed and contractors are in short supply predict a long and difficult road ahead. There are a number of positive efforts occurring locally to support those made homeless by the event and related recovery needs, and insurers are busy providing claims services to help people back on their feet financially. But everyone should understand the magnitude of the destruction and the huge challenges that the whole community faces for the future.
Former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate was recently quoted talking about our society’s failure to plan for the worst case scenario. A quick Google search shows that he’s been talking about this for at least a decade, imploring not only emergency managers and government agencies to start a shift in thinking, but also calling on residents to recognize and acknowledge that government alone cannot avert the destruction and suffering from the next flood, hurricane or wildfire to come along. If nothing else, I hope the Camp Fire is the motivation for communities all over the country facing natural hazard risks to engage, plan and act to address the situation long before the next deadly event occurs.
Photos taken by Michele Steinberg, NFPA, in Magalia, California, January 22, 2019