This foothill town on a wooded Sierra Nevada ridge has dodged devastation before.
A decade ago, in the summer of 2008, two ferocious wildfires ran right up to its edges. More than 130 homes burned to the ground in the surrounding rural areas, but damage was relatively limited inside its borders, where mobile home parks and modest mountain houses fill up its warren of streets.
Following those fires — part of what Cal Fire still refers to as the “2008 siege” — city leaders began working on an evacuation plan. They broke up neighborhoods into geographic zones that, in the event of a wildfire, would be cleared one at a time to avoid gridlock. There are few roads in and out of Paradise.
With about 27,000 residents, the town also went through the unusual exercise of holding mock evacuations during morning rush hour, closing some streets and turning a major two-way road into one way to let people practice getting out fast.
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Even with that planning, Paradise was no match for the Camp Fire.
“The fire moved so quickly, we had to evacuate the entire town (at once),” said Mayor Jody Jones.
The most destructive wildfire in California history raced through this week, laying waste to the evacuation plan along with nearly every home and business. Jones estimated that “80 to 90 percent” of homes were destroyed; Cal Fire has placed the toll at more than 6,400 homes and 260 businesses. By comparison, last year’s Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa — previously the most destructive blaze in state history — leveled 5,636 structures.
Jones and the four other members of the town council lost their houses. Two of the three grocery stores in town burned to the ground. Cars were flipped over and twisted by the heat.
On Friday, the day after the fire, there was an eerie silence in Paradise, broken only by the sound of birds chirping.
“It’s similar to those neighborhoods in Santa Rosa that are just gone,” Jones said. “It burned through very quickly and very hot. The fire came through so fast, it burned streets of homes.”
Evacuation routes turned into seas of vehicles during the height of the emergency, leading frantic residents to abandon cars and attempt to escape the fire’s advance on foot.
“There were just a lot of people trying to leave at the same time,” said Jones.
At least 29 people died and more victims will likely be recovered, potentially making the Camp Fire the deadliest wildfire in state history. Some died in their vehicles as they tried to navigate through exploding utility transformers and burning trees, smoke likely too thick to see beyond their windshields. Hundreds of vehicles jammed onto Skyway, the largest road leading out of town toward the relative safety of Chico.
“Hell was knocking on our door,” said Ian Franklin, who fled Thursday with his wife and 14-month-old son.
Jones said town residents “have to be prepared” for news that the death toll will rise.
Bill Stewart, the co-director of Berkeley Forests, a wildfire and forest research department at the University of California, Berkeley, said Paradise had “about the most advanced level of planning I’ve heard of,” but the speed and ferocity of the fire was too much.
“It overwhelmed the town,” said Stewart.
As of Saturday morning, the Camp Fire had grown to 100,000 acres and was 20 percent contained. Cal Fire officials warned that high winds expected Saturday night could cause it to spread further, potentially toward the city of Oroville.
Stewart said it appears the Camp Fire moved faster than the Tubbs Fire, fueled by “everyone’s worse case scenario” of dry November winds reaching high speeds — up to 50 miles per hour.
“This has been the worst nightmare, that at some point we would lose an entire town in half a day,” he said.
Situated at the rim of the Sierra Nevada — 2,000 feet above the Central Valley floor — this Gold Rush-era community is surrounded by tall pines and steep canyons. Everything dries out in the summer and into the fall, especially in years like this one when it hasn’t rained for months. High winds blow through town often.
Paradise has long been on the list of towns where the worst case scenario was a real possibility. The canyons and thick forests are “what make Paradise unique and give it a lot of charm and make people want to live there,” said Rick Carhart of Cal Fire’s Butte County unit. But it’s also the kind of topography that makes it dangerous.
“Those two things (the canyons and forests), combined with a whole lot of wind, it turned into I think what a lot of people feared might possibly happen someday,” said Carhart. “No matter where a fire is, whether it’s on one side of town or the other, fire just naturally wants to run up hill and head right toward Paradise.”
Butte County public safety officials have long acknowledged the risks facing Paradise.
All but a handful of the town’s 9,900 homes were in areas that Cal Fire determined were facing a very high wildfire threat, according to a 2013 hazard mitigation plan released by Butte County. More than two dozen day care centers, four fire stations and eight schools were also in that zone. The total value of buildings in the very high severity zone was estimated at $1.2 billion.
The 2013 hazard plan also determined that evacuating people from the town during a wildfire – especially elderly residents – “can be challenging due to limited egress availability of roads.”
As more Californians seek life in previously rural areas, wildfires are reaching densely populated neighborhoods more frequently. A fire burning in Los Angeles and Ventura counties has scorched many homes. The Carr Fire in and around Redding destroyed more than 1,600 structures this summer.
Errin Taggert and Traci Gaczol both made it out of the Camp Fire Thursday and met up with several friends from Paradise Pines RV Park at an evacuation shelter in Oroville. They have dozens of friends unaccounted for, they said, including Gaczol’s boyfriend.
Taggert was especially worried about a young man named Shayne Tinnell who leaped out of the RV Gaczol was riding in, insistent on going back for his prized truck.
“It’s dark and smoky, he probably (couldn’t) breathe or see ... That’s a terrible way to die,” Taggert said. “The fire surrounds you, and there’s nowhere to go.”
The shelter had provided a bed since they left Paradise, but Gaczol didn’t know what she would do in coming days.
“We have nowhere to go back to,” Gaczol said. “What’s going to happen to us?”