Learning from the Camp Fire Six Months On

This spring, I visited the town of Paradise, located on the slopes of the Cascade Range near Chico, California. The Camp Fire burned through Paradise last November killing 87 people, mostly older residents. The fire also destroyed some 14,000 homes and another 4,800 structures like commercial buildings, schools, and churches. Another 637 structures were “damaged,” according to California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) estimates, meaning more than 19,000 buildings were lost or damaged in the fire. In total, 90 to 95 percent of all structures in Paradise and the nearby community of Concow were destroyed — within six hours of the first ignition.

The Camp Fire was the deadliest wildfire in California history and one of the deadliest in the United States. By the time the fire was contained, it had burned 153,336 acres

It’s been more than six months since the fire, and there is still no city water available. It may be two to three years before the water system is deemed safe to drink. No schools are open. Only a few gas stations and food stores that escaped the blaze are operating. Additionally, the soil in many of the burned sites is loaded with toxic materials from the melted metal, plastics, and other building materials. Before rebuilding, the soil must be decontaminated.

Indeed, the Camp Fire is the largest hazardous material cleanup site in the state of California. Due to the significant risk to public health, in early February 2019, FEMA announced that “health and safety hazards” posed an immediate threat to those living in recreational vehicles on their burned properties.

To me visiting Paradise was like coming to a war zone. One cannot imagine how complete the destruction from this blaze is until you have seen it firsthand. About the only individuals I saw were people wearing hazmat outfits doing toxic waste removal or yellow-orange safety vests cutting down hazard trees.

What stood out the most several months after the blaze were the standing green trees all around. Looking down the highway or street around town, it often was a tunnel through live forest, but underneath those trees there were no standing houses — just burned out foundations. Those trees that were burned were next to remains of destroyed houses, indicating that it was the burning houses that scorched them or killed them.

Even more stunning to me was to see entire commercial centers like a shopping mall or church completely burned to the ground with nothing but twisted steel girders and debris to show where large buildings once stood. I used to believe if there was significant “blacktop” like a large parking lot surrounding buildings, they would survive a fire — the Camp Fire proved my assumptions were incorrect.