Weekly newspaper of Three Rivers, California, and Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks

BURNED OUT: During the Camp Fire last November, 85 people perished, 70 of whom have been identified and all but 10 of these victims were over the age of 60. (Click arrows for additional photos.)BURNED OUT: During the Camp Fire last November, 85 people perished, 70 of whom have been identified and all but 10 of these victims were over the age of 60. (Click arrows for additional photos.)BURNED OUT: During the Camp Fire last November, 85 people perished, 70 of whom have been identified and all but 10 of these victims were over the age of 60. (Click arrows for additional photos.)BURNED OUT: During the Camp Fire last November, 85 people perished, 70 of whom have been identified and all but 10 of these victims were over the age of 60. (Click arrows for additional photos.)Fire victims are unable to return and reside on their properties.

PARADISE LOST: The community with an idyllic name is now hell on earth

By: 
John Elliott

 

I toured Paradise, California on Saturday, Feb. 2, and the incineration has to be seen to be believed. There are no words to adequately describe the destruction. 
 
Three months have passed since the deadly Camp Fire devastated the town of Paradise and its surrounding mid-slope communities in Butte County, yet the specter of death remains.
 
In the news this past week, thousands of residents of Paradise were told they can’t go back to their properties because the entire burned area has been declared “a public health emergency.” Benzenes are seeping into the water. The rubble is a toxic mix that is stirred up every time the wind blows. It’s truly a dead zone and it is painfully obvious that unthinkable tragedy happened here.
 
The federal government says people cannot live in an area declared a public health emergency. The feds are calling the shots on the clean-up. It’s a bureaucratic mess of unprecedented proportions.
 
Camp Fire 
 
Unless you have been living in a vacuum, you know what happened in Paradise beginning November 8, 2018. The disaster was so completely life-changing it is still affecting the lives of thousands who will never again regain what their existence was like before that fateful fire. 
 
The Camp Fire was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. It was named for Camp Creek Road near its place of origin. The exact cause of the fire is still being investigated.
 
The fire caused 85 deaths and covered an area of 153,336 acres. Destroyed in the firestorm were 18,804 structures with most of the $16.5 billion in damage occurring in the first four hours.
 
One quarter of the property damage — $4 billion — was uninsured. The fire was 100 percent contained on November 25, 17 days after it ignited owing to wet weather that doused the region on Thanksgiving Day. If that rainfall had occurred just two weeks earlier, it’s probable there wouldn’t have even been a Camp Fire. 
 
The Back Story  
 
I’ve always thought of that area for two of its economic engines: the California State University at Chico and it’s the agricultural hub of the upper Sacramento Valley. Among Butte County’s most successful businesses, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company immediately comes to mind. 
 
In 1980, I was in Chico working on an archaeological excavation on the grounds of the Bidwell Mansion to report on what might be encountered subsurface as improvements were made to the historic home built in 1865 by California pioneer General John Bidwell. 
 
Like so many California archaeological sites of the mid 19th century, what was unearthed were small things forgotten — bits and pieces from native-made goods and trade items from the Far East and the west.  
 
Stored in my memory of that week in Chico is our campus hosts telling us about a new brewery and restaurant that had just opened. It was called “Sierra Nevada.” 
 
Who knew back then that Sierra Nevada was destined to become the signature microbrewery of California and arguably the best-known brewery in the industry?
 
And now it’s an iconic symbol of the resilience of Butte County — Butte County strong. Sierra Nevada’s campaign to enlist 4,000 breweries to brew a recipe of Resilience IPA has already raised millions of dollars to aid Camp Fire victims.  
 
Back to the Bidwell Mansion that today is located on the campus of Chico State. After Bidwell married Annie Ellicott Kennedy in 1868, the couple took up residence in the 26-room Victorian mansion. 
It became the social and cultural center of the upper Sacramento Valley.  The property that contains the mansion was designated as a California Landmark and Monument in the 1960s.
 
As a part of my Chico historical research for Scientific Resource Surveys Inc. in 1980, I took a side trip to Paradise to visit John Winterbourne. Winterbourne, a distinguished WPA archeologist, organized field crews of trainees of the unemployed (mostly women) in the 1930s, who excavated famous archaeological sites in a number of states including California.
 
Winterbourne’s voluminous notes were oftentimes the only recorded locations where an entire region’s archaeology might be unearthed. In the 1970s, when CEQA required this research be done, many of these treasure troves in Southern California remained undisturbed. That is, until the furious pace of development began exposing these sites, intentionally or not.
 
Now my career has come full circle as a newspaper publisher and planning commissioner with an entirely new focus: What lessons can we learn from the Camp Fire? Is it possible to create fire-safe communities, minimize risk, and avoid disasters like what happened in Paradise? 
 
It is questions like these that turned my attention to Butte County. During my 13 years serving as a planning commissioner and as an executive board member of the California Counties Planning Commissioners (CCPCA), I have interacted with and learned from planning commissioners from around the state. I’m now one of three past presidents on a committee to choose annual conference sites and themes. 
 
With no obvious place for our 89th annual conference to be held in 2019, it didn’t take rocket science to come up with a program that could address the most critical planning challenges of our time: Fire and Water. Recent events — the Paradise Fire and the Lake Oroville spillway breach of two years ago — dictated our committee go to Chico to confront these issues firsthand. 
 
These are issues that affect each and every Californian and challenge all planning commissions and their county’s supervisors as we plan our way onward in the 21st century.
 
Next time: A perfect storm of pine needles: Can we plan our way out of the nation’s costliest disaster of 2018?  
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