1 year after the deadly Camp Fire razed this town, officials aim to rebuild ‘stronger’ than before
A handful of businesses in Paradise have rebuilt and reopened, one year after the Camp Fire destroyed thousands of homes and businesses in Northern California. AccuWeather’s Bill Wadell shows us the challenges people face in a town slowly rising from the ashes.
In 2018, more than 7,500 wildfires burned nearly 2 million acres across California, continuing a trend of extremely active and damaging wildfire seasons in the state that are starting earlier and ending later.
While many fires in the state’s records have been notorious for their size, destructive capabilities or deadly impacts, there has never been a fire of the magnitude of the Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive fire in California’s history, which decimated the town of Paradise. The community is coming up on the one-year anniversary of the fire and next week will take a major step in its remarkable resurrection when the local airport reopens.
Satellite imagery captured the extent of the Camp Fire on Nov. 9, 2018. (Photo/NASA)
The official report indicates 85 people lost their lives, nearly triple the number of fatalities caused by the Griffith Park Fire, which killed 29 in Los Angeles County in 1933. In August of this year, the Camp Fire death toll was revised to 86, the Butte County Sheriff's Office said, when a 72-year-old man died from injuries suffered in the blaze after spending months in the hospital.
The inferno also destroyed 18,804 structures, nearly 14,000 of which were residences, well ahead of the Tubbs Fire, which burned 5,636 structures to the ground in the state’s wine country in October 2017.
What initially was shaping up to be a serene Thursday morning in the quaint mountain town of Paradise, nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills, quickly turned into a chaotic nightmare that brought unimaginable loss.
Despite the calm start to the day on Nov. 8, 2018, fire officials in Butte County were on alert as a red flag warning had been issued by the National Weather Service, indicating a high risk of wildfire danger. All the ingredients were in place: low humidity, powerful winds, tinder-dry vegetation and warm weather.
Just around 6:30 a.m., the Camp Fire ignited in the Feather River Canyon along Camp Creek Road, with the first signs of smoke emerging near the town of Pulga, about 30 minutes northeast of Paradise. The fire, which was later determined to have been sparked by a power line owned by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), moved with extraordinary speed as the winds fueled its growth.
The fire burned into Pulga to the east and west into Concow, Paradise, Magalia and the outskirts of east Chico, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire). Within an hour, the fire had spread 12 miles, prompting a frenzied evacuation.
Nichole Jolly, a nurse at the now-closed Feather River Hospital, which suffered extensive damage, was among the evacuees. Some patients had to be transported while still using IV bags.
"It wasn’t a normal evacuation that we’ve been planning and rehearsing,” Jolly told PBS FRONTLINE. “It was so fast.”
In just two days, the blaze had consumed 100,000 acres and would burn a total of 153,336 over the course of two weeks.
Over the course of five hours, 90% of the homes and businesses in Paradise were lost. The town, which dates back to 1848 when miners began flocking to California during the early stages of the gold rush, would have to start over from the ground up.
Melissa Schuster, a member of the Paradise Town Council, has been at the forefront of wildfire-ravaged town's recovery. She is seen here giving an update on the rebuilding process on local news station Action News Now in Chico, California. (YouTube / Action News Now)
Melissa Schuster, 59, is one of the many that has endured hardship following that fateful November day.
Schuster, a four-year member of the Paradise Town Council, has called the area home for nearly 20 years and operated a bed and breakfast, Chapelle de l'Artiste, an estate with 3 homes, a massive outdoor living area and a two-story art barn in the southern part of Paradise. It was a spot where she and her husband held fundraisers for local non-profits and "epic" Halloween parties, the last of which occurred just before the fire.
In 2008, she almost lost her home when the Humbolt Fire encroached on her property. This time, after Schuster and her family safely evacuated the Camp Fire, much of the estate was lost in the blaze. She said she grabbed only enough clothes for a couple of days, figuring that she would be back home soon enough.
"We didn't have a concept that our home was going to burn," she said. "It didn't really enter into our consciousness."
As Schuster and her family rebuild, she told AccuWeather that Paradise has been “amazing in its recovery,” but that there are still “many needs.”
“Something like this has never happened to this magnitude before, and so we’re learning as we go and we are facing challenges as we go,” she said.
One of those challenges is the removal of the debris as well as over 500,000 dead or dying trees in the area. Ordinances have been enacted to help homeowners remove hazardous trees on their property damaged by the fire.
Today, cleanup efforts around the Paradise area nearly complete, Chris McSwain, a spokesperson for the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle), told AccuWeather.
CalRecycle was tasked with the cleanup efforts by the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services along with the California Department of Toxic Substances Control. What typically happens after a wildfire-related cleanup is the department of toxic substances will arrive on the scene and begin to remove hazardous household items such as propane tanks and compressed gas cylinders while also monitoring for areas of asbestos.
It’s then that CalRecyle initiates what's known as Phase 2. This involves disposing of burnt debris, ash and contaminated soil as well as searching for recyclable materials such as metal from automobiles and concrete.
The fire’s path through Paradise left behind tremendous devastation, making for an enormous challenge in terms of the ensuing environmental cleanup and the rebuilding process.
This map indicates the perimeter area of the Camp Fire and the structures that were damaged, destroyed or unharmed. Red shows the number of homes destroyed, tan indicates major damage, yellow is minor damage and green is homes that were affected. Black indicates no visible damage. (Image/Cal Fire/ArcGIS maps)
“I think the challenge is that it’s very rare that a fire strikes a community in such a devastating way,” McSwain said, adding that more than 3.6 million tons of debris have been hauled away to this point.
The population is slowly returning, but not everyone will return for a variety of reasons, according to Schuster. One source of optimism has been the number of new families that have enrolled students in the Paradise Unified School District. Officials were expecting about 700 students when schools reopened this year, but Schuster said about 1,800 had shown up on the first day.
“We’re not going to in five years get back to 26,500 people; that’s not a realistic goal,” she said. "I can tell you that we’re on track for issuing over 500 building permits in this first year,” she said, adding that they hope to get to over 1,000 in each of the next few years.
While a number of new homes are under construction, signs of the Camp Fire linger with many burnt out structures and vehicles scattered around Paradise.
Some folks are looking to get home as quickly as possible, so they’re turning to manufactured homes. Schuster said the council has looked to enact ordinances to harden those types of homes while other residents are seeking to rebuild with more fire-resistance materials.
As a policymaker, Schuster and her fellow leaders are working to transform the community to better the region overall, but also with future fire dangers in mind.
“We’re looking at creating bike paths and pedestrian paths that in the event of an evacuation can be used to accommodate emergency vehicles, allowing contraflow on the main road. Traffic can go the same direction on the same lane on the road and still allow for emergency vehicles to come in the opposite direction,” she said.
On the day the fire started, as the entire town was forced to flee, many had to shelter in place in their vehicles in cars at intersections, parking lots and even under a metal gazebo at a nearby park.
Officials are looking into the idea of creating more parks with structures within them that can function as safe havens when evacuation isn’t possible. Having more interconnected parks, walking trails and bike paths is proven to enhance the quality of life in rural communities, Schuster said.
Dozens of community members gather at Paradise Community Park during a weekly summertime event known as "Party in the Park." The event reportedly saw record attendance this year.
The one-year anniversary comes at a time when California is once again ablaze, with dozens of wildfires developing since mid-October.
“The most important thing is for other people that live in the wildland-urban interface, whether it’s in California or whatever state you’re in, keep an eye on Paradise because we’re kind of the proving ground now,” Schuster said.
A number of community events and fundraisers have already taken place, with a series of events scheduled in Paradise on Nov. 8, including the dedication of a Camp Fire memorial and an 85-second moment of silence in memory of the lives lost.
Another promising sign of the town's resurrection will take place next week. The Paradise Airport is scheduled to reopen on Nov. 13, the first time it will see planes arrive and depart since the fire hit.
"It is a pretty special event for us; it has been hard to be closed for almost a year, and with the one-year anniversary coming it is pretty special to have the airport up and running," airport owner James Franklin told Action News Now.
The commemorative events and ribbon-cutting ceremonies for rebuilt structures will serve as both a reminder of the tragedy and the start of a new chapter of opportunity in Paradise.
“We knew it was going to be a long process, so we’re going to make [the town] better and stronger and more beautiful and healthier and more vibrant than ever before,” Schuster said.
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