Jody Jones, the mayor of Paradise, joked recently that the Camp Fire spared her town’s most vital infrastructure — the Starbucks and Dutch Bros. coffee shops. She turned absolutely serious, though, when declaring Paradise will recover.
“We’re committed to the rebuilding process,” Jones said while hosting federal and state officials for a tour of the devastated community. “I believe we are literally going to rise from the ashes.”
But should they?
Paradise is overflowing with can-do spirit. Many of its residents were drawn there by a pioneering attitude, leaving the worries and costs of urban life for a chance to live among the tall pines and steep canyons of rural Butte County.
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But the near destruction of Paradise leaves this town of 27,000 people confronting daunting realities as it contemplates its future.
There is likely nothing that can be done to fireproof Paradise, wildfire experts said. The town is just a few miles from the Plumas National Forest in a part of Northern California struck by hundreds of wildfires over the past century. Stiff breezes that locals call the “Jarbo winds” whip into town, fueling the spread of blazes through thick, dry wildland.
A Butte County analysis from 2013 determined that 99 percent of Paradise residents lived in areas facing a very high risk of wildfire. That analysis also warned that a mass evacuation during a wildfire would overwhelm the town’s limited escape routes. Paradise town leaders had designed some of the most advanced fire evacuation strategies in California — yet 86 people died in the Camp Fire, the highest death toll of any wildfire in state history.
“This fire, if it happens again, we’re not going to stop it,” said Ken Pimlott, the just-retired director of Cal Fire. “So how do we build communities that are more resistant to that?”
A better Paradise?
California history shows that local leaders – keenly aware of the risks – will rebuild Paradise despite the dangers. More than 1 million homes are expected to be built in the state’s most fire prone regions over the next four decades. Cities devastated by fires in recent years, including Santa Rosa and the tiny Siskiyou County city of Weed, are rebuilding.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has just approved a 19,000-home development in a rural swath of land that Cal Fire has designated as high and very high wildfire severity zones.
Jones said Paradise will be rebuilt to “the highest standards for protecting our community.” But professionals in the fire business acknowledge that perhaps the best they can do is try to minimize the damage.
Pimlott suggested that stricter building codes and “more evacuation routes” may be in order. Residential areas facing severe fire risks can take other measures to limit destruction, such as building well-irrigated golf courses and other open spaces to serve as buffers between forestland and residential areas.
The Trump administration has seized on the Camp Fire, as well as the Carr Fire in Redding in August, to push a plan to thin out California’s forests more aggressively. Gov. Jerry Brown subscribes to that theory as well, albeit with less fanfare, and has persuaded the Legislature to earmark $1 billion over the next five years to ramp up forest management.
Yet many experts say removing trees and improving evacuation routes will only go so far. The area around Paradise has seen 12 fires of at least 300 acres since 1999, according to Cal Fire data. Paradise’s location in the so-called wildland urban interface means it’s probably always going to be at risk.
When winds kick up, a single spark can create a runaway fire that will blow through the forest and start feeding off homes. That’s what happened with the Camp Fire, and the Tubbs Fire last year in Santa Rosa, said Max Moritz, a wildfire specialist at the University of California Cooperative Extension.
“In the wildland interface areas ... homes are often the primary fuel that’s carrying the fire forward,” he said.
Moritz said the lesson from that is simple: Thinning out forests, and building better evacuation zones and other defensive measures, are fine. But they aren’t foolproof.
“This push to rebuild and to do it better and be more resilient, all that’s on the right track,” Moritz said. “But when we rebuild, we have to be really careful that we’re not recreating the same potential catastrophe 20 or 30 years down the line.”
Some people will undoubtedly move away from Paradise and never return. The loss of 90 percent of its homes has created an immediate, region-wide housing crisis that will test the patience of even the most loyal Paradise residents. That’s especially true for older residents who feel they don’t want to wait through a rebuilding process that could take years, Jones said.
“It’s going to be a smaller town, at least to start with,” Jones said in an interview. “Eventually it’s going to attract people ... and it will grow back to the same size.” Jones herself just bought a house in Chico to replace the home lost to the fire, although she plans to move back to Paradise in a few years.
There’s also the gnawing sense that something like the Camp Fire could happen again.
Paradise residents acknowledge the danger — and many are ready to go back home and live with it. Those who lost their homes but have insurance will be aided by millions, if not billions, of dollars from coverage and federal government aid.
“There’s going to be a risk of something no matter where you go,” said Jim Moore, who returned to Paradise to inspect the ruins of the three-bedroom home he shared with his wife Alicia.
“It’s going to be fire or flood, anything ... If you love the town, you’re going to stay,” he added. “It’s going to take more than a fire to get rid of us.” The couple is staying in an RV in Chico.
The rebuilding process took its first step Dec. 5, when the Moores and hundreds of others were allowed back inside Paradise in the first wave of homecomings permitted by the Butte County Sheriff’s Office. It was a somber, difficult visit, with residents sifting through ashes in search of closure and keepsakes.
For the most part, residents vowed to rebuild and said they had faith that safety improvements will be made.
“The town will rebuild, and rebuild better, have better access points for us to get out,” said Jennifer Duran, a mother of four. “It will be a better Paradise.”
Just up the road, however, Debbie and Lou Donnelly weren’t quite so gung-ho.
Shoveling debris from what was left of the four-bedroom home they bought 30 years ago amid the tall pine trees on Fickett Lane, the couple said they think they’ll be eligible for a trailer from FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
But the Donnellys, who are currently squeezed into their son’s two-bedroom apartment in the Chico area, are struggling with the idea of spending a couple of years in a mobile home while their house is rebuilt.
“You know what?” Debbie Donnelly said with a sigh. “We just don’t know.”
It seems unlikely that Paradise will experience the kind of catastrophic population loss that New Orleans suffered after Hurricane Katrina, when half the city’s population left. Even today, after years of recovery, New Orleans’ population is about 20 percent smaller than it was before Katrina.
But Paradise is running a desperate race against time. Some residents will start to lose hope if they don’t see tangible signs of recovery quickly, said Mark Misczak, a former FEMA deputy director.
“People may consider relocating if they can’t see what’s coming next in the recovery,” said Misczak, now a senior managing director with disaster consulting firm Witt O’Brien’s. “They say, ‘I have to find something that works for me and my family right now.’”
Years of recovery
If history is a guide, the recovery in Paradise will be long and slow.
About 150 miles north of Paradise, the tiny city of Weed is still struggling to recover from the Boles Fire, which swept through the community in September 2014 and destroyed more than one-fifth of the housing stock.
Of the 148 homes that were lost, 82 have been rebuilt. City Administrator Ronald Stock said some homeowners are still fighting with insurers. About 50 rental homes, many of them in the poorest part of town, haven’t been rebuilt, and Stock said he can’t find a developer willing to replace them.
He said, Weed “will not be 100 percent rebuilt for another five to 10 years.”
In Santa Rosa, where the Tubbs Fire claimed 2,900 homes last year, 81 homes have been rebuilt and another 734 are under construction. Officials say they’re pleased with the progress so far.
“We’re kind of where we expected, maybe a little bit ahead,” said Mark Gossman, Sonoma County’s director of recovery and resiliency.
Yet the impacts of the Tubbs Fire abound. The county’s homeless population grew by 161 this year — after seven straight years of decline — to a total of 2,996. Another 10,741 people in the county are still bunking in with friends or relatives and are considered “precariously housed” because of the fire.
Gossman is worried that the flurry of mega-fires that’s beset Northern California, along with the strong economy, will hamper his community and others as they rebuild.
“We’re seeing bottlenecks ... for supplies and labor,” he said. “Now, with the Camp Fire, and the loss of 13,000 homes and structures, that’s got to have an impact. We’re all going to be competing.
“I worry about the Butte folks,” Gossman said. “They’re not used to paying the types of prices that we’re used to paying ... It’s a much poorer community.”
Paradise’s rural location, in an area where new housing tends to be built sporadically, doesn’t help. For all of 2017, a total of 823 building permits were issued in Butte County, according to census data. “We don’t have a lot of resources for housing people,” Jones said.
Other complications are bedeviling Paradise. Of the homes lost, 183 were owned by customers of tiny Merced Property & Casualty Co. of Atwater, which was overwhelmed by the losses it was facing in Paradise and went insolvent. Their damages will be handled by an industry-funded guaranty fund, which is authorized to pay a maximum of $500,000 per claim.
Then there’s the matter of the town’s commercial district, about half of which survived the fire. Jones said the town still has two of its three grocery stores, a hardware store and several banks, which she called significant building blocks for Paradise’s recovery.
But even when the lights come back on and the town reopens for business, Paradise’s merchants will face a huge problem: lack of customers. Many of Paradise’s displaced residents live an hour away or more, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
“The issue is, how do you get enough people back to support those businesses?” Jones said. “You need a customer base.”