Paradise Lost: The Camp Fire and Its Aftermath

by on January 3, 2019 · 1 comment

in California, Ocean Beach

Wild Fires in California – Part 3

by Bob Edwards

They say there are only six or less degrees of separation between any two persons on the planet. When it comes to California’s wildfires of 2018, there was zero to one degree of separation for me:  I was either directly affected or had friends impacted by three of the four biggest blazes to hit our state in the past year.

In December the OB Rag published two articles I wrote about my lifetime of experiences with California wildfires as well as first person accounts of the Woolsey (Malibu) and Carr (Shasta  and Trinity Counties) Fires and their aftermaths. (Here’s Part 1 and Part 2.)

Today’s article covers the big one, the Camp Fire, and how it affected some of my friends who live near the blaze.

First detected on November 8, 2018, under power lines owned by Pacific Gas and Electric, the fire burned more than 150,000 acres, destroyed almost 19,000 structures and killed 86 people as well as displacing 50,000. The fire leveled almost all of the towns of Paradise, Cancow and Magalia.

My friends Bobbi and Robin who live twenty miles west of Paradise in Chico first became aware of the fire not long after it broke out at sunrise on November 8th.

NASA Satellite Picture of Camp Fire (from Wikipedia)

Within hours the air quality started getting bad in Chico and soon my friends received news about how horrible the situation was. As is often the case with fires that occur in the “urban-wildlands interface”, communications were difficult and many people did not receive the news that it was time to evacuate. When the residents finally attempted to flee the blaze, escape routes were blocked or overwhelmed by traffic.

Within six hours, most of Paradise was reduced to ashes and scores of people were dead with many still missing.

Smoke from the fire traveled as far south as the Bay Area and Sacramento prompting over twenty school districts to cancel classes.  According to wikipedia:

“John Balmes, a physician at the University of California, Berkeley who sits on the California Air Resources Board, noted that the fire ‘[resulted in] the worst air pollution [ever] for the Bay Area and northern California’.”

The San Francisco Bay Bridge During the Camp Fire (left) And a year ago on a clear day (right) (from Wikipedia article on the Camp Fire)

A week into the fire, President Trump paid a visit. After getting the name of the destroyed town wrong, calling it “Pleasure” instead of “Paradise”, he blamed the wildfires on the government of California and suggested that raking the floor of the forest could prevent fire damage in the future. When asked if the spate of California fires had caused him to now believe in climate change, Trump said “no”.

According to my Chico friends, most locals recognized the idiocy of Trump’s remarks but people were still too upset to find humor in the dozens of “rake the forest” memes that swamped the internet after his statement. Brian Rice, president of the California Professional Firefighters, described Trump’s assertion about forest management practices as “demeaning” and “dangerously wrong,” noting that 60 percent of California forests are directly managed by the federal government, which has reduced spending on forestry in recent years.

Many of the evacuees fled to Chico, location of a California State University and home to about 85,000 people. Although the Red Cross and other organizations began establishing emergency shelters, some fire escapees set up camp in a Walmart parking lot with no water and limited toilet options.

Four young friends of mine who live in Chico made their homes available for fire victims. Emily and Rob allowed an older couple to park their camper in front of their house, providing them with an electrical hook up. They also had another evacuated family with two dogs and two cats living in their basement. They housed a third family in an upstairs bedroom.

Emily’s sister and brother-in-law, Jessica and Paul, also opened their home to fire victims. They had a family with two large dogs stay with them until they were able to find a home to rent. The new landlord would not allow dogs so Jessica and Paul continued to house the pets even after the owners moved out. Jess also volunteered at the local animal shelter, exercising dogs whose owners were unable to care for them.

There were lots of opportunities for volunteerism.

My friend Bobbi, a retired RN, donated time at a Red Cross shelter. She said that initially there was a sense of emotional flatness in the community. Victims had no idea how to proceed with their lives and were feeling hopeless and depressed. People who hadn’t lost homes or family members were happy they were okay but many felt “survivors’ guilt” over their escape from harm when so many of their friends and neighbors were suffering tremendous losses.

Emergency Animal Shelter For Fire Victims (Butte County webpage)

My friends had many stories to tell: A man with a history of mild lung disease required oxygen 24 hours a day due to the poor air quality. A musician lost his home and all of his instruments. A pot grower’s trimmed crop of bud burned before she could get it to market so she lost not only her home but most of her income for the year.

Now, two months later, Chico is still inundated with people who lost their homes. Hotels and shelters are full and traffic congestion has overtaken weather as the most common topic of conversation. The county and state governments have been clearing away the debris of burned homes and businesses, and have begun repairs to infrastructure. As insurance company money is released, some people are starting to rebuild or placing mobile homes on their property.

Damaged Infrastructure In Paradise (City of Paradise Facebook page)

A big debate remains over the wisdom of rebuilding in a fire prone area.

Along with fire prevention (through brush clearance and other interventions) and efforts to reverse climate

change, building in the urban-wildlands interface is a major topic that needs to be addressed.

Things are only like to get worse, especially as some of our elected officials and citizenry bury their heads in the sand and continue to deny climate change and oppose efforts to reduce it.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

molly Molly January 3, 2019 at 1:09 pm

Thank you Bob for compiling this series. We all need to be reminded of what just happened a few hundreds of miles away.

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