CHICO — Randy Greb could see the flames swallowing Paradise when he jumped on his electric bicycle gripped by a terrifying thought: The elderly people he cared for wouldn’t be able to escape the inferno.
His hometown was burning down around him as he rushed through winding forest roads to the home of one 90-year-old resident.
Please, please, please, he thought. Let them be safe.
No one was home.
He prayed. Back on his bike, the home health-care worker raced for the main streets, but they were clogged with vehicles carrying as many people as could be crammed into them.
The 61-year-old Navy veteran spent the day riding through neighborhoods consumed by waves and walls of flames, helping strangers.
Days after the fire, he was among the thousands of Paradise evacuees living like refugees in nearby Chico shelters, cars or, like Greb, in tents.
Remembering the fire, he thinks about one woman standing alone. She looked confused. He told her she had to get out. Now, he said. She wouldn’t move.
He convinced her to evacuate with a promise: She asked him to swear he’d find her husband. They had been separated in the chaos.
Greb gave his word.
“I looked her in the eyes and I lied,” he says, his voice falling to a throaty whisper, his eyes filling with tears. “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
He didn’t know what happened to her or her husband. No one knew at the time that the Nov. 8 Camp Fire would make grim history as the deadliest and most destructive fire in the United States in 100 years.
Eighty-five people would die.
Officials are still wading through what went wrong and how to prevent it from happening again.
But no one who survived was surprised by the death toll.
“It looked like after a nuclear fallout,” said Don Hankins, a Chico State University geography and planning professor who studies fire management and was evacuated from his home near Paradise during the blaze. “I think about the images from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s like that, but the trees are still standing.”
‘It looked like after a nuclear fallout’
Eight months have passed since the Camp Fire ravaged an area the size of Chicago, tearing through the equivalent of 80 football fields of forest per minute.
At one point, the unofficial list of missing people topped 1,300. And nearly 19,000 structures were destroyed, including about 14,000 residences.
Even scientists who study treacherous wildfires were stunned by the destruction and death toll.
The fire has been cited as the “new normal” of how climate change will create deadlier wildfires.
Experts agree that hotter and drier conditions are more challenging. But some also warn against a defeatist approach to safeguarding lives and resources. In short, they say, we already know how to prevent these fires from spreading and diminish their death toll.
A growing number of wildfire and public-health experts hope that before it fades into memory, the Camp Fire will mark a turning point, spurring local, state and federal officials to finally implement short- and long-term safety measures — before there’s another deadly fire and everyone is forced to admit: More should have been done.
“It’s unimaginable,” Max Moritz, a cooperative extension wildfire specialist at the Bren School, University of California, Santa Barbara, said of the death and destruction.
After this fire, experts say, no one should wait for more studies because we already know solutions: controlled burns, vegetation management, development and building standards in or near forests and enforcement of utility safety standards.
But those efforts often get bogged down in arguments over local versus federal control, Moritz said.
The Camp Fire comes after a string of destructive California wildfires. There are many more vulnerable towns, said Moritz.
?Where will the West’s next deadly wildfire strike? The risks are everywhere
“The problem has been decades in the making, and the solutions are not hidden, they’re not going to come out in a (cause-of-fire) report,” he said. “There are Paradises all over the place just waiting to happen. That’s what’s really urgent and the message we need to get out there.”
While the Camp Fire should be a game-changer, Moritz said, he’s seen outrage and resolve wane following a deadly fire.
“The fear that many of us have is we’re going to see an event like this catastrophe and nothing substantive has changed — it’s going to be bundled into the new normal that we’re hearing about now,” Moritz said. “Rather than accept it … why aren’t we rising up and demanding change?”
Here are the changes, that had they been heeded before the Camp Fire ignited, might have prevented the fire, slowed the destruction or reduced the death toll.
Where the fire started: Can a power shutdown save lives?
On Nov. 7, just after 5 p.m., the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection posted a warning on its Facebook page.
“A #RedFlagWarning for #CriticalFireWeather has been issued for most of interior Northern California and areas of Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange and San Diego counties starting later today through Friday due to gusty winds, dry fuels and low humidity. Please use caution while outdoors. One Less Spark – One Less Wildfire.”
Winds were whipping, the rainy season was late, and the ground was parched.
After past fires were sparked by utility equipment, the utility PG&E adopted standards for shutting off power during life-threatening fire conditions, such as Red Flag warnings.
PG&E, which provides service to 16 million Californians, had turned off power to 60,000 people in Northern California during a Red Flag warning in October. Customers complained. But the utility defended its decision, saying its equipment could spark a fire in the dangerous conditions.
Two days before the Camp Fire, on Nov. 6, PG&E warned customers that “starting on Thursday, November 8” it might “proactively turn off power for safety” in nine counties, including Butte where Paradise is located.
Don Hankins, the Chico State geography and planning professor, received the notice. He lives north of Paradise in Forest Ranch, a close-knit community of 600 tucked among pine groves.
Hankins studies and lives with fire. He’s on the county’s Fire Safe Council board, a member of the Forest Ranch Fire Safe Council, president of the California Indian Water Commission and field director of the university’s Chico Ecological Reserves.
Despite the warning, the utility company didn’t turn off the power.
Hankins said he can’t fathom why PG&E didn’t shut off power. “Given that they had called everyone and said that was the plan, it’s weird,” he said.
If PG&E is going to place electrical infrastructure in forests “then shutting off the power, that’s a great place to start, so no spark can happen,” Hankins said.
But PG&E has too much authority over fire-prevention policies, he said. “They seem to have the ability to do whatever they want.”
PG&E told The Arizona Republic in an email that “the forecasted conditions didn’t meet the criteria to initiate a Public Safety Power Shutoff.”
“There are a series of factors that PG&E considers,” said company spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo. “These include strong winds, very low humidity levels, critically dry vegetation and on-the-ground observations by our crews.”
Fire-safety advocates and Camp Fire evacuees believe the company didn’t act because PG&E executives were worried about repeating the backlash that followed a 2017 shut-off during dangerous fire conditions.
Wildfire experts say the high death toll in the Camp Fire might also make the public more willing to accept the inconvenience of a power shutdown as a trade-off for safety.
The questions about PG&E’s role in wildfires go beyond power shut-offs.
Cal Fire found PG&E caused more than a dozen Northern California wildfires in 2017. The fires were ignited by issues with power and distribution lines, trees or branches that fell onto power lines, or the utility’s failure to clear vegetation near utility equipment.
Under public pressure, PG&E in February outlined additional safety measures to reduce wildfire risk. They include installing stronger utility poles, covering power lines in the highest-risk areas and increased vegetation management around utility equipment.
But even if PG&E abides by the regulations, Hankins said, the law only requires that trees be kept about 4 feet from power lines. Hankins said it’s an arbitrary distance that’s likely not large enough to prevent a power line from touching vegetation in high winds.
This year, as part of PG&E’s Community Wildfire Safety Program, it installed cameras and weather stations to monitor conditions, boosted vegetation-management, inspected and repaired hundreds of thousands of miles of power lines, and established a stricter power shutdown program for extreme weather conditions. It also decommissioned the transmission line that ignited the Camp Fire.
Moritz said that safety measures could be implemented faster if Gov. Gavin Newsom and state lawmakers demand greater accountability from utilities.
Critics say state leaders have been too lenient with PG&E. The utility took 10 years to develop new safety reforms that were finally adopted after a string of deadly fires in 2017.
“They seem to have the ability to do whatever they want,” Hankins said.
Critics also note that when PG&E is found liable for a fire, officials have allowed it to recoup its costs from customers. They argue utilities will act faster on fire prevention if they are on the hook for the full cost of fires they cause.
On Nov. 8, the day PG&E warned it would shut off the power, as children were readying for school and adults were leaving for work, a small fire broke out in a rugged, wooded area north of Paradise, where nearly 27,000 people live in Butte County’s second-largest city after Chico.
A lawsuit filed in early December on behalf of homeowners blamed the utility company’s “unsafe electrical infrastructure.”
On Dec. 11, PG&E issued a preliminary report noting that Cal Fire “identified coordinates for the Camp Fire” near a PG&E tower north of Paradise in the forests of Pulga, an unincorporated village along the west slope of the Feather River Canyon.
Cal Fire has said the fire started in Pulga at 6:33 a.m., about 15 minutes after PG&E’s Caribou-Palermo tower lost power. The equipment, built in 1919, is among the many old lines in the region.
At about 6:30 a.m., a PG&E employee saw a fire near the tower. Utility employees called 911.
Cal Fire in May said that the Camp Fire was caused by electrical transmission lines in the Pulga area owned and operated by PG&E.
The utility would find damaged equipment on the nearly-100-year-old tower. A nearby tower also was damaged — an anchor that holds down insulation had disconnected, according to a preliminary report.
The fire was headed toward Paradise at a breakneck pace.
Could 1-mile buffers protect forest towns?
After the flames jumped the Feather River, residents of Paradise and surrounding Butte County realized this could be the fire they had always feared.
Hankins believes prescribed fires to control vegetation could have stopped the wildfire from reaching Paradise. Prescribed fires create a charred barrier to limit the spread of fires. Hankins has long advocated for larger prescribed fires around urban areas in forests.
The Humboldt Fire in 2008 destroyed about 80 homes in Paradise. Hankins said the Camp Fire may not have reached Paradise if prescribed burns were required after that fire. He said officials balked at prescribed fires in the forests surrounding Paradise because areas were still charred from past fires.
But even limited vegetation in dry and windy conditions can fuel a fire, Hankins said.
Once sparked, embers are carried across forest lands and canyons spreading fire until it reaches towns. Once a fire hits a region with homes and buildings, it spreads viciously as embers jump from structure to structure.
Satellite images show how the Camp Fire destroyed nearly 12,000 homes in Paradise, California.
Ideally, Hankins said, routine prescribed burns would create a half-to-one-mile barrier around homes and towns. The distance is considered safe, he said, to prevent an ember staying lit long enough to travel from wildlands to urban areas.
Scientists have long pushed for a combination of thinning forests and prescribed fires to limit large-scale fires. Burning removes surface fuels and forest floor shrubbery, and the thinning of trees removes ladder and canopy fuels.
Some communities have balked at prescribed burns. Residents have argued the smoke causes health problems and point to instances when fire-management officials lost control of a prescribed burn and spurred a larger fire.
The risk of controlled burns can be minimized by monitoring “burn windows,” weather conditions and seasons when the danger of fire spreading is minimal.
Hankins hopes the Camp Fire prompts state and federal lawmakers to mandate more regular prescribed burns to protect people living in wildfire-prone communities across California.
Last year, fire scientists unveiled new models to identify hot spots in wildfire-prone regions. The idea is to identify specific sites within communities like Paradise, that if ignited, would increase the risk of fire spreading.
The inferno hits Paradise: Can you build a more fire-resistant town?
Once the Camp Fire reached Paradise, homes, not trees, fueled the blaze.
Moritz, the Santa Barbara-based fire researcher, said houses were like matchsticks in the wind-driven fire.
Across California, communities are tucked against hillsides and along ravines where western winds are so powerful, they are christened with their own names. In Paradise, the Jarbo Gap winds stream from Feather River Canyon into the valley.
On the morning of the fire, 32 mph winds were blowing through the Jarbo Gap mountain pass, with gusts up to 52 mph.
Lessons on what went wrong should weigh developing stricter standards based on what scientists and firefighters already know about the wildland-urban interface, where homes are built near or in lands prone to wildland fire.
Climate change is extending the traditional fire season, Moritz said, contributing to longer and deadlier blazes in the wildland-urban interface.
Homes throughout California are built in fire-prone zones.
By October, Northern California’s rainy season usually starts and heavy rains arrive in the winter. The precipitation limits fire risks. But the summer before the Camp Fire was warmer than average, and in Northern California, rainfall “ranged from below average to record dry.”
Moritz said limiting dangers to people and homes amid wildfires has become an urban-planning-and-design issue more than a forest-management issue.
Conversations about the risk of building in fire-prone zones aren’t new, he said. What’s needed is the resolve to force statewide regulations that protect homeowners and firefighters’ lives, he said.
“How do we do it smarter in the future if we’re going to build hundreds of thousands of homes in the coming decades?” he said.
Cal Fire officials have mapped fire-prone regions. The maps have risk gradients — hilly areas where winds travel faster, sites where there are multiple road routes out of the city — that would help regulators identify safer areas to build in.
Building homes and developments in regions that limit fire risks would be similar to state standards on building in flood zones.
“Really, the problem of fatalities and evacuations and homes themselves burning are the result of homes being the fuel (for the fire),” Moritz said. “It wasn’t a forest fire sweeping through this town; it was fire moving home to home, and that’s how it spread. That isn’t getting out. That isn’t widely understood.”
Development standards are a long-term fix. Experts agree the more immediate need is to retrofit homes and create better safety plans for towns that exist in a wildland-urban interface or that, like Paradise, are in the wildland-urban intermix, which designates communities with housing and wildlands vegetation that fuel fires, as opposed to the interface, which designates communities with housing adjacent to wildlands vegetation that fuels fires.
Federal and state funding is needed to help retrofit roofs with fire-resistant materials in these high-risk areas, as are stricter enforcement and regular inspections of state-mandated defensible space, which requires clearing vegetation around homes and structures from 30 to 100 feet.
“After these (California fires) catastrophes back to back, things feel really urgent, and it doesn’t seem like we need to wait for a report to make some pretty strong statements about what’s needed and what the lessons were,” Moritz said. “The problem has been decades in the making, and solutions are not going to come out of a (cause-of-fire) report.”
There are reasons these homes in Butte County survived the fury of the Camp Fire last November.
Hector Amezcua, The Sacramento Bee
Trapped in a fire: What happens when alerts and mass evacuations fail?
As the Camp Fire tore through Paradise, live power lines fell across streets adding to the hazards during the mass evacuation.
Before the Camp Fire, Paradise had created new evacuation plans that included turning certain escape arteries into one-way routes to speed evacuations.
Paradise had practiced its evacuation plans, but no one expected such a massive fire nor such a massive evacuation or factors that would keep people from escaping.
Hankins said that one major evacuation route, Skyway, didn’t immediately become one-way because the fire exploded with such force that emergency vehicles were still trying to enter Paradise.
Residents were stuck in a massive traffic jam while fire raged around them.
Evacuation plans “were well thought out; they were planned, but I think in the fire, there were problems with people getting out of neighborhoods,” Hankins said. “With dead ends, the infrastructure starting to collapse … and you’ve got power lines going down. How do you create an evacuation plan if all these roads are blocked?”
Hankins said the city should limit the number of streets that dead-end into forest, and PG&E should replace the old power lines with underground lines.
Shortly after the fire, Hankins traveled to Paradise and saw utility workers busy putting power lines back up.”Now, they’re probably going to be married to keeping the lines and roads the way they are,” he said.
Hankins disagreed that forcing PG&E to bury power lines to prevent fires would be too costly to build and maintain.
“What is too cost-prohibitive when you think about the cost of lives lost and houses lost?” he said.
Paradise mayor describes Camp Fire evacuation
Damon Arthur, Record Searchlight
People who have lived through wildfires said simple changes could improve communication during a fire.
Many people throughout Concow, Magalia and Paradise said that they didn’t get warning calls on their cellphones because of poor service. Some people living in rural areas do not opt in to receive the calls.
A group of Concow residents at a community meeting after the Camp Fire told city, fire and law-enforcement officials it’s no surprise so many people didn’t get sufficient warning. They said the community knew after a 2008 fire in the area that calls and knocking on doors had failed. They asked if anything was going to change. One man argued for something as simple as a bullhorn on a fire truck traveling streets, warning people.
Perhaps, Moritz said, some people would have received an earlier alert if fire stations or other town buildings were equipped with sirens similar to the ones used to warn of air raids or tornadoes.
California legislators met with fire officials who said they were still working on a standard statewide warning system. That’s too little, too late, said many Camp Fire victims.
Fighting the fire: Would sheltering in place during a blaze save lives?
Among the people killed in the Camp Fire were more than two dozen men and women over the age of 70.
It’s ghastly to imagine people who wanted to evacuate, but couldn’t, said Faith Kearns, a fire, water and climate scientist at University of California’s Institute for Water Resources.
Sheltering in place during a fire has been a taboo topic because it competes with the priority that public safety and fire officials place on evacuations. But Kearns said fires in the past two years have become so fierce, so swift that to save lives officials must acknowledge that they will not be able to get everyone out.
Kearns said shifting the conversation from fire-management to public health and safety would make it easier to have tough conversations about the vulnerable who may not be able to evacuate — people with disabilities and older residents, for example — and to designate sites where they can shelter in place when it’s too late to evacuate.
“When do you finally look at fire through a new lens? This a public-health-and-safety issue that we need to take a good hard look at it and say then, ‘What do we do?'” Mortiz asked. “As long as we view it as a fuel- and fire-management problem, we’re never going to get ahead of it.”
This new perspective, he said, views wildfires like other natural disasters. No one thinks you can fight a tornado, so the focus is on minimizing the danger. With wildfires, he said, the keys are warning systems that include modern and basic technology, such as sirens, sheltering in place and building structures that are fire-resistant.
Hankins said he heard some people who couldn’t get out of Paradise took refuge in large concrete parking lots away from residential areas.
The Paradise Cemetery was also left untouched by fire. Hankins said the combination of few buildings and extra watering to keep the cemetery grass lush might have kept fire away. It too could have served as a sheltering site for people who couldn’t evacuate or those who waited too long.
Hankins said he knew of at least one elderly woman with disabilities who was unable to evacuate and died in the fire. Moritz said that after Australia’s 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, officials there established sites for people forced to shelter in place.
It’s a last resort, he said, but one that could save lives.
The deadliest U.S. fire in 100 years: Will anything change?
After the deadliest U.S. fire since 1918, experts and firefighters remain on edge. Moritz and Kearns wrote an article calling for change.
“The deaths themselves are devastating; they’re brutal,” Kearns said. “To view that as normal or as the price we have to pay, I think it’s heading us down the wrong road.”
“California is failing to keep up with what we know about fire hazard and risk and losing time as we struggle against rapidly changing climate conditions. Simply put: There is no time to waste,” Moritz and Kearns wrote for the online academic journalism site “The Conversation.”
Moritz said the Camp Fire should be a turning point for the United States, the way the Black Saturday bushfires were for Australia.
The Black Saturday bushfires were the most devastating in Australian history, resulting in the deaths of 173 people and 414 injuries. The Australian government called it “a tragedy beyond belief” and called for a commission to investigate the fires and issue widespread policy recommendations to limit risks in future fires.
Moritz hopes Newsom, elected last year, will bring new resolve and fresh perspectives.
“Can’t we use this as a springboard for a conversation about where and how we build these communities?” Mortiz asked.
A Paradise family lost their home to the Camp Fire and now they are sleeping in a tent.
Thomas Hawthorne, The Republic | azcentral.com
‘I’ll be back’
On a Saturday, a few days after the fire, Greb, the Navy veteran who rode his bike through Paradise saving strangers, stood a few steps from his tent — cardboard boxes covered with a blue tarp and a heap of donated clothes.
It was all he had left.
He had survived the fire to become one of the thousands of homeless Camp Fire evacuees.
He was living in a tent city that had grown outside a Chico Walmart. He knew President Donald Trump was in town visiting Paradise. No one living in shelters or tents cared, he said.
Like many of the homeless evacuees, Greb slips between thinking about his life before and after the fire.
For longtimers, the Camp Fire was the colossal wildfire they had always feared. Cars melted. Propane tanks and transmitters exploded. Embers flickered across rooftops that erupted in lava-red flames until entire streets and neighborhoods were consumed.
“It was hell,” Greb said.
People living in tents, in cars, with family, with strangers, Greb said they all lost something in the fire.
“The things we don’t want to talk about,” he said.
In December, Greb posted on social media a photo and a video taken a week before the fire, a week before he broke a promise he can’t forget and told a lie to save a life.
In the photo, his old e-bike, the one he rode through the fire helping strangers, rests against a wooden cross.
“I loved my town so much. I road over 3,000 miles all over Paradise. Every inch of every road I traveled down, burnt,” he wrote. “The last journey my bike had was a noble one.”
In the video, he’s cleaning a thick bed of needles off a trail that cuts through the towering pines that watch over Paradise. The sun lights the sky blue, like it was before the fire. Greb finished his post with three words: I’ll be back.
Evacuees from the town of Paradise camp on the side of a Walmart parking lot in Chico, California, after losing their homes to the Camp Fire.
Thomas Hawthorne, The Republic | azcentral.com
Explore: More communities; many risks
List of identified victims of the Camp Fire
Of the 85 fatalities, 79 have been positively identified, four have been tentatively identified and two remain unknown.
- Teresa Ammons, 82, of Paradise
- Richard Brown, 74, of Concow
- Paula Dodge, 70, of Paradise
- Randall Dodge, 66, of Paradise
- Jesus Fernandez, 48, of Concow
- Ernest Foss, 63, of Paradise
- Joseph Rabetoy, 39, of Paradise
- Lolene Rios, 56, of Paradise
- Joan Tracy, 82, of Paradise
- Marie Wehe, 78, of Concow
- Kimberly Wehr, 53, of Paradise
- Carl Wiley, 77, of Magalia
- Russel Stewart, 63, of Paradise
- Carol Arrington, 88, of Paradise
- John Malarkey, 89, of Paradise
- Joanne Malarkey, 90, of Paradise
- David Young, 69, of Concow
- Joyce Acheson, 78, of Paradise
- Victoria Taft, 67, of Paradise
- Joanne Caddy, 75, of Magalia
- Deborah Morningstar, 66, of Paradise
- David Bradburd, 70, of Paradise
- Evva Holt, 85, of Paradise
- Vernice Regan, 95, of Paradise
- Richard Garrett, 58, of Concow
- Elizabeth Gaal, 80, of Paradise
- Sara Magnuson, 75, of Paradise
- Larry Brown, 72, of Paradise
- Donna Ware, 86, of Paradise
- Julian Binstock, 88, of Paradise
- John Sedwick, 82, of Magalia
- Jennifer Hayes, 53, of Paradise
- Dennis Hanko, 56, of Paradise
- Helen Pace, 84, of Paradise
- Gary Hunter, 67, of Magalia
- Beverly Powers, 64, of Paradise
- Sheila Santos, 64, of Paradise
- Andrew Downer, 54, of Paradise
- Lou Herrera, 86, of Paradise
- TK Huff, 71, of Concow
- Gordon Dise, 66, of Chico
- James Garner, 63, of Magalia
- Robert Duvall, 76, of Paradise
- Sally Gamboa, 69, of Paradise
- Joy Porter, 72, of Paradise
- Dennis Clark, 49, of Paradise
- Forrest Rea, 89, of Paradise
- Rafaela Andrade, 84, of Paradise
- Don Shores, 70, of Magalia
- Jean Forsman, 83, of Magalia
- Shirlee Teays, 90, of Paradise
- Larry Smith, 80, of Paradise
- Rose Farrell, 99, of Paradise
- John Digby, 78, of Paradise
- Ellen Walker, 72, of Concow
- Christina Heffern, 40, of Paradise
- Dorothy Mack, 88, of Paradise
- Andrew Burt, 36, of Paradise
- Barbara Carlson, 72, of Paradise
- David Marbury, 66, of Paradise
- Frederick Salazar, 76, of Paradise
- Vincent Carota, 65, of Paradise
- Warren Lessard, 68, of Magalia
- Kathy Shores, 65, of Magalia
- Anna Hastings, 67, of Paradise
- James Kinner, 84, of Paradise
- Cheryl Brown, 75, of Paradise
- Robert Quinn, 74, of Paradise
- Berniece Schmidt, 93, of Magalia
- Chris Maltby, 69, of Paradise
- Ronald Schenk, 75, of Paradise
- Gerald Rodrigues, 74, of Paradise
- William Godbout, 79, of Concow
- Dorothy Lee-Herrera, 93, of Paradise
- Ethel Riggs, 96, of Paradise
- Ishka Heffern, 20, of Paradise
- Matilde Heffern, 68, of Paradise
- Phyllis Salazar, 72, of Paradise
- Shirley Haley, 67, of Paradise
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