Rebuild Paradise? Since 1999, 13 large wildfires burned in the footprint of the Camp Fire

Rebuild Paradise? Since 1999, 13 large wildfires burned in the footprint of the Camp Fire

02 December 2018

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USA – Chris Folkman deals in catastrophic risk. As a disaster analyst, he builds models that simulate wildfires. So as he watched the horrific headlines of the Camp Fire unfold last month, he began researching and creating a map of the region’s fire history.

What he found left him speechless. Since 1999, 13 large wildfires had burned within the footprint of the Camp Fire’s 153,000-acre scar.

The history of fire in this dry, blustery region of Northern California has added emphasis to a difficult question raised by the destruction of last month’s historic blaze: Should Paradise be rebuilt?

Repeat natural disasters haven’t stopped human habitation in the past. Despite the deadly October 2017 Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County, whose footprint almost mimics the 1964 Hanley Fire, rebuilding efforts are underway in Santa Rosa. New Orleans resurfaced after Hurricane Katrina. And so on.

But whether we should live in such disaster-prone areas is the billion-dollar question — or $7.5 billion to $10 billion question, if you consider Folkman’s estimates on insured losses so far from the Camp Fire. The blaze that decimated the Gold Country town of Paradise killed at least 88 people and destroyed more than 14,000 homes and businesses, both records for California.

“I think there needs to be a frank conversation about rebuilding and fire resilience,” said Folkman, a disaster analyst with RMS. “The good news is there are measures to be taken to make a house less susceptible to a wildfire. In the end, we have to face the fact that the climate is changing and a lot of houses are built in dangerous areas.”

Stay or go?

For a decade, Cindy Hoover has feared the Jarbo Gap winds. Ever since she plopped her fish in a mason jar and sat in gridlock as she tried to evacuate Paradise during the 2008 Humboldt Fire — which started east of Chico and eventually destroyed 87 homes — Hoover would pack her bags and have her keys, water and dog leash sitting on the counter when the winds started whistling.

“For 10 years I tortured myself with anticipation of what had just happened on Nov. 8,” said Hoover, who escaped the Camp Fire with her husband. “I escaped effortlessly only because I was ready, I always watched the weather, the wind and slept with my windows open smelling for the smell of burning vegetation.”

The couple lost their house, and she’s not sure she will return after 45 years.

“I want to live in Paradise. It’s my home but I cannot live in a community that Paradise has become,” Hoover said. “This fire wasn’t a case of protecting homes, it didn’t have a chance.”

Casey Taylor does not share Hoover’s doubts. As a Paradise native, she can’t imagine living anywhere else than where her three-bedroom home built in the 1970s once stood. The executive director of Achieve Charter School already has contacted her insurance company and is receiving temporary housing help.

“I know our town leaders personally and they were committed to revitalizing Paradise before the fire, and even more now, to bring it back better than ever,” she said.

Cal Fire historical data shows that 42 fires larger than 300 acres have burned within the Camp Fire footprint since 1914. By sheer luck, the town of Paradise had largely been spared widespread destruction despite a century of close calls.

The Camp Fire was the eighth blaze Linda Luck has had to flee in California, including two others in Paradise, but it hasn’t scared her away. Her Grinding Rock Way home, built of cinder block and a tile roof, is damaged but still standing.

“Would I go back? Yes,” Luck said. “My husband built that house.”

She’s heard from neighbors who won’t be joining her; at one meeting, only seven of 60 residents said they’d return to Paradise.

“I’m hearing that from a lot of my friends. It terrorized them,” she said.

Wildland interface

Sixty percent of new homes built in California, Washington and Oregon since 1990 have been developed in what’s known as the Wildland Urban Interface, according to Headwaters Economics, a Montana-based group that created the Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire program.Folkman said that includes intermix — where vegetation and houses intermingle, such as in Paradise, and interface, where a concentration of houses abuts a forest or chaparral.

“The interface is really susceptible to very large losses because there tends to be a big cluster of houses,” Folkman said. “At the same time, it’s an extremely desirable place to live … it’s picturesque.”

Kelly Pohl, a Headwaters researcher, said Folkman’s map provides important information for communities that have been hit repeatedly by fire. Planners should consider that when asking whether there are certain areas people should not live.

“These recent disasters are really begging that question, and the answer probably is yes. There’s probably areas not safe in relation to wildfires,” Pohl said, referring to the historical map of fires in the Paradise area. “I think that’s all really important information for communities to look at when deciding where to allow homes.”

That being said, such communities can be rebuilt much more safely and resistant to fire by designing subdivisions with good escape routes, fuel breaks and fire-resistant materials and design features, she said. A Headwaters study released Tuesday found negligible cost differences in adding wildfire-resistant materials and design features to homes.

Such measures are all the more critical as climate change extends fire seasons and brings less rain and drier vegetation. Burned acres per wildfire has doubled since the 1990s, and the fire season in the West averages 84 days longer than the 1970s, according to Headwaters.

Recurring debate

The debate over whether it is safe to rebuild is not a new one for Butte County.

Over the summer of 2008, the Humboldt, Lightning and other fires burned about 100,000 acres in the Paradise region, more than 400 homes were lost or damaged and two people died. It could have been much worse, and it prompted the Butte County civil grand jury to issue a report.

“By some miracle, the Humboldt Fire incident did not cross the West Branch of the Feather River,” the jury reported. “Had this occurred, property damage could have been huge and thousands of lives could have been threatened in Paradise and the Upper Ridge.”

The panel recommended a moratorium on home building in fire-prone areas and specifically cited the general plan’s forecasting of 3,400 additional units, or about 15,000 people, in “foothill fire-prone areas,” including a 330-house development, which would have placed the homes on the canyon rim.

But in September 2009, the Butte County Board of Supervisors replied to the grand jury’s recommendation, calling it “not reasonable.” The supervisors noted building code improvements and fire prevention requirements for new housing.

Such land-use questions are being asked across the country and particularly in California, Oregon and Washington, where 84 percent of the wildland urban interface is undeveloped, according to Headwaters.

Butte County supervisor Doug Teeter — who lost his Paradise home to the Camp Fire, along with the homes of his mother and sister — wasn’t on the board when it rebuffed the grand jury report but said his community is safe to rebuild.

“Absolutely, it’s a ridge. I feel it’s defendable and the reconstruction will be to modern building standards,” Teeter said, adding the historical fire map is misleading as many of the fires listed burned in uninhabited areas. “When Paradise gets rebuilt, it’s going to have different standards. It’s got to have that.”

Paradise Mayor Jody Jones, who also lost her home, said Paradise has grown responsibly, mostly rural residential homes on large lots, not large subdivisions.

“They didn’t abandon New Orleans after Katrina, they’re not abandoning Hawaii although there’s a volcano going off, they’re not abandoning San Francisco despite the earthquake dangers,” she said. “Anywhere you go, there’s some risk of a natural disaster.

“We’re not going to abandon our town.”

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