PARADISE, CALIFORNIA — Brook Jenkins moved to the town of Paradise to escape a rough neighborhood in nearby Chico and raise her three children in an idyllic small town, filled with trees. Paradise isn’t next to a forest; it’s in a forest. Trees run between houses like gargantuan picket fences.
“It was peaceful up there,” Jenkins said. “It was beautiful.”
Yet those elegant towering Gray pines, cottonwoods, and walnut trees that drew people to Paradise also posed an immense risk of catching on fire. Six years of drought, including the driest period in California history, collided with bark beetle infestations that started spreading in rapidly in 2010, killing off scores of the state’s iconic giants.
There are now more than 129 million dead trees in California sprinkled through forests like the one in Paradise, ready to burn like matchsticks. And with more people living closer to this dry timber, the likelihood that someone, or something, will spark a fire has grown steadily higher.
Residents lived uneasily for years knowing that a massive conflagration was possible. Some even recalled seeing flames inch perilously close to the town in years past.
“We prepared for it, but we never thought it was going to happen,” Jenkins said.
When the Camp Fire, named after Camp Creek Road where the blaze began, tore through the town on November 8, it filled the quiet streets with cacophony. The flames roared, tree trunks burst, and propane tanks exploded as the fire swiftly gained ground. By the time the fire passed, almost all of Paradise, once home to 26,000 people, was obliterated.
Around Butte County, upward of 52,000 people have been forced to evacuate due to the Camp Fire. The vast 142,000-acre blaze has already made its mark as the deadliest and most destructive fire in state history, having killed at least 63 people, left 631 missing, and burned down 9,700 residences.
People in nearby towns saw the fire risks too, and grew concerned that they were getting worse as seasons got warmer and drier in recent years. “You have an instinct that something is not right,” said Theresa Squires, who fled with her dog Carob from Magalia, a town of 11,000 people in the path of the fire. “It doesn’t feel normal and hasn’t for a long time.”
She recalled being unnerved when she first visited Magalia in 2011 and saw so many dry pine trees so close to homes. “I was just saying the day before [the Camp Fire] that this is a scary situation to be in, and lo and behold,” Squires said.
It’s tempting to treat the Camp Fire as an anomaly, a one-off, worst-case scenario disaster. As Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said on Twitter after visiting the area this week, “Every time I come to California I say this is the worst fire I’ve seen. Once again this is the absolute worst. Worse than any war zone I saw in Iraq.”
The fact is, climate and forest science tells us that massive wildfires like this are likely to become more destructive as average temperatures rise and populations grow, putting people and fuel into closer contact. We can do many things to reduce these risks. However, the Camp Fire is a stark vision of a future where we do nothing.
The Camp Fire was years in the making, but residents only had minutes to flee
I drove to Paradise on Thursday, venturing into ever thicker and more ominous smoke that shrouded the highway. When I arrived, I was struck that there was scarcely any sound at all, not even from leaves rustling. Bits of ash flurries drifted from charred tree branches. Dust coated every surface. Pockets in the ground were still smoldering and billowing smoke. The carcasses of cars, paint scorched off and tires melted, were scattered along the streets.
The homes in Paradise are now almost all flattened save for their brick chimneys stubbornly standing firm. Only a handful of people were on my street, mainly searchers in white Tyvek suits, prodding among the wreckage aided by cadaver dogs. They are combing house by burned-out house for human remains.
The swift winds that at one point advanced the flames at a rate of one football field per second have now died down. Firefighters have taken advantage of the lull to cut firebreaks in dry forests and pile up soil to control the blaze. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reports that the Camp Fire is 45 percent contained and expects to reach 100 percent by the end of the month.
But even a week after the fire passed, the panicked early moments when the flames roared in remain vivid for Paradise residents like Jenkins.
On the morning of November 8, Jenkins watched as the sky turned orange, and embers and ash fluttered around her house in Paradise. She rushed to get back to the elementary school where she had just dropped off two of her children. By the time she returned home, the Camp Fire had spread around her house. “Within 30 minutes altogether, it was surrounding us,” Jenkins said. “We didn’t have time to get anything.”
She and her husband piled their three children, their relatives who lived with them, and all their dogs and cats into three cars and started heading away from the flames and toward Chico, about 20 miles away. The journey took more than three hours, the narrow highways choked with people like her fleeing the roaring fire.
Trees ignited and fell along the roads. Traffic stopped. Jenkins was separated from her children, who were riding in a different car with relatives further behind. With cars at a standstill and the fire encroaching, Jenkins left her car to gather her stranded children on foot. When she returned to her car, she saw flames inching toward her back bumper.
She said she’s grateful to be alive and wants all her friends and family to know she, her husband, her brother, her sister, and her mother-in-law, and her three children are safe.
For now, she is now staying with her family in a motel in Red Bluff, about 40 miles northwest of Chico. But the home and the life she built in Paradise is gone. What’s next is uncertain. “I just don’t know where we’re going to go, what we’re going to do,” she said.
The looming question is where evacuees from the Camp Fire will settle
Some of the people fleeing the flames found shelter with friends and family. Others are staying in evacuation centers in the nearby city of Chico. And others still are sleeping in their cars or camping in tent cities that have organically emerged in the miasma of the inferno.
Down in Chico, the city of roses, the air smells dry, dusty, and oddly sweet. The smoke has bathed the city in a sunset glow even in the middle of the afternoon. Local children ride Razor scooters wearing N95 respirators.
A makeshift bazaar has taken root on the edge of a Chico Walmart parking lot where volunteers distribute food, clothing, respirators, and toiletries to what’s become a de facto refugee camp. Dozens of people have camped out in their cars while others have pitched tents on the grass shoulder.
The site emerged organically, but that’s also led to some frustration, according to Guido Barbero, a Chico resident who is coordinating volunteers at the site. Various city officials and local law enforcement have promised more formal leadership and another site to shelter evacuees. However, in the week since the Camp Fire ignited, the Walmart camp has only grown. Now they have word that they must clear out the site by Tuesday. Where the evacuees will go remains uncertain.
“It’s really the lack of information” that’s hampering relief, Barbero said.
At the same time, the ingredients for an unprecedented fire have been brewing for years, so better planning and coordination for a relief effort should have been in place to deal with the fallout. “This was going to happen sooner or later,” Barbero said. “This was not a surprise to us.”
While the campsite has been overwhelmed by donations of clothes, food, and supplies, some of the evacuees are growing concerned about health issues. Over the din of portable generators, coughing echoes throughout the camp as the omnipresent wildfire smoke in the air exacerbates health issues like asthma. The air quality here is some of the worst in the world, earning a rating of “hazardous.”
Other residents complained about theft and poor sanitation. Temperatures are also dropping as the city heads further into winter. The strip of dried grass where people have pitched their tents is prone to flooding, and rain is expected next week.
Some health issues are also emerging in some of the formal evacuation sites. One shelter in Chico reported a norovirus outbreak.
Meanwhile, across town at Bidwell Junior High School, Red Cross volunteers are moving cots into a gymnasium to give the 65 evacuees there more space. Katherine Grochowski, the shelter supervisor, said the site also has too many donations of food and clothing. “Cash is the best thing to give,” she said.
Despite the risks, relief efforts are focusing on resettling people from Paradise
Grochowski, who has been working in relief efforts for 19 years, said the recent spate of fires and storms across the United States “seems like one disaster after another” but added that relief organizations are getting plenty of firsthand experience, helping them get better at responding to calamities.
But on the question of whether people afflicted by a disaster should relocate or rebuild, Grochowski choked up and recalled her own brush with disaster, a tornado that struck her hometown of Owensboro, Kentucky. Some people moved away, but others were adamant about restoring what they lost in the storm, an attitude she found inspiring. People all over the world have a sense of place and belonging with their homes, no matter the risks, according to Grochowski. And she couldn’t imagine moving away herself after a disaster.
Chico city manager Mark Orme agreed. “The optimal solution here is to get people back home as soon as possible,” he said.
Even though the climate is changing — warming up the air, drying out the trees, and increasing the severity of droughts, thereby fueling massive fires— Orme believes that it is possible to prepare for these risks. That can range from fireproof construction to strategically removing fire-prone trees. But he acknowledged that it’s hard to prepare for an unprecedented disaster like the Camp Fire, and rebuilding to mitigate the next wildfire will take towns like Paradise, Magalia, and Concow into uncharted territory with untested solutions.
“You obviously never expect the largest of disasters in State of California history to happen on your doorstep,” he said.
Right now, the City of Chico is trying to restore a sense of normalcy for evacuees. Chico officials even hosted a town council meeting for Paradise officials, allowing them to use the chambers to discuss the minutiae of running a city, with the added challenge that most of the city is gone.
“I was amazed at the pride and passion of that community,” Orme said.