PARADISE LOST: A perfect storm of pine needles
March 5, 2019 - 16:24 admin
Part One may be read here.
* * *
The Camp Fire — a wildfire that destroyed a town, caused 85 deaths, burned an area of 153,336 acres, and caused more than $16 billion in damage — was the costliest natural disaster in the U.S. for 2018.
The cause has yet to be officially determined. The fire started in brush near Camp Creek Road around 6:30 a.m. on November 8 near where a PG&E crew was working the previous day. The fire burned its way along five miles in the first 90 minutes to the southwest just outside of Paradise.
After exhibiting extreme fire behavior in the community of Concow (pop. 710) in the form of 40 to 50 mph wind gusts fanning a huge mass of burning embers over a vast area, the blaze became an urban firestorm in the more densely populated foothills town of Paradise (pop. 26,700).
There have been many theories as to the key factors of why this fire, in mere hours, became the worst wildfire in California history. The demographics of Paradise are clearly a factor — the majority of those who are casualties of the fire are over 60.
The community was a haven for retirees, many who live in mobile homes, and families with young children who came to escape the high real estate prices of other California cities. Among these foothills folks were many who had been through other wildfires and survived.
At first, some wanted to stay behind and hose down their properties but the power was out and pumps were inoperable. The initial reluctance to leave soon became widespread panic in the rush to depart.
Setting the stage
The early November mid-slope landscape (Paradise, like Threee Rivers, is at an elevation of just over 1,000 feet) was extremely dry last fall coming off another of the warmest summer’s ever recorded. Thousands of stressed-out mature pine trees, a residual of the multi-year statewide drought, had covered everything with a thick layer of pine needles that were now tinder-dry. Most property owners had cleared rooftops of the pine needles but they were prolific: in piles along property lines awaiting a hazardous fuel reduction burn day, on the roofs and windshields of mostly stationary RVs, boats, and old vehicles; outbuildings; and abandoned buildings.
Into that volatile mix add a downslope wind from the northeast with sustained gusts in excess of 50 mph. In the business district of Paradise on Skyway at Oliver Road, the firestorm swirled like a tornado of burning embers. Huge flame-lengths were approaching from two directions. Anyone caught in the middle of the raging inferno did not make it out.
Ironically, the flames blew so fast through Paradise that the large pine trees, many with trunks measuring more than 18 inches in diameter, though singed by the furnace of heat, did not incinerate. The embers, however, ignited every accumulation of pine needles, burning vehicles, mobile home parks, outbuildings, homes, commercial buildings.
In all, 18,804 structures were destroyed. Paradise and the 153,336 acres that were consumed by the Camp Fire in 17 days were the victims of a perfect storm of pine needles.
In 2005, Cal Fire released a fire management plan warning that Paradise was at risk for an ember-driven fire storm similar to the 1991 fire that ravaged the Oakland hills. The report stated: “...The greatest risk to the ridge communities is from an East Wind driven fire that originates above and blows downhill through developed areas.”
The Camp Fire area of Butte County has experienced 13 large wildfires since 1999. After the Butte Lightning Complex fires in 2008, a Butte County grand jury report concluded that the roads leading from Paradise and the Upper Ridge communities had “significant constraints” and “capacity limitations” that inhibited their use as evacuation routes.
The report also noted that road conditions increased the fire danger and the possibility of closures due to fire and smoke — curvy, narrow roads; inadequate shoulders; and these hazardous areas being adjacent to steep slopes with excessive fuels that would predictably block roadways with burning debris.
The grand jury recommended a moratorium on new home construction in fire-prone areas. In September 2009, the Butte County Board of Supervisors called the grand jury report “not reasonable,” citing improved building codes and fire prevention requirements as arguments against a moratorium.
Paradise city planners were also warned that these “fire studies” were not being included in new plans. In 2009, it was proposed that there be a reduced number of travel lanes on roadways and Cal Trans-endorsed funding was received to implement a “road diet” along three of the town’s main thoroughfares and evacuation routes.
A road diet approach can effectively slow through traffic so that motorists might stop and patronize local businesses. After hearing from critics, an updated circulation plan codified changes that would convert one of the routes (Skyway and its four lanes) into a one-way route during emergencies, effectively doubling its capacity.
Paradise: Who is responsible?
Paradise, and other foothills communities like Three Rivers that have developed in wildland urban interface areas, are located in state-responsibility areas. In these areas the State of California provides fire prevention and suppression. Due to a need for increased state resources to defend these communities from wildfire, a fire assessment fee was imposed on California SRA property owners starting in 2011 to furnish fire prevention.
There were some alleged abuses and lots of disagreement of how the money should be used and, after collecting and spending $470 million, a measure to suspend and repeal the fee was approved by the California Legislature in July 2017.
Coming Up: How can California be fire safe? How can risk be reduced? What will it take for Three Rivers to become “fire adapted”?