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Stories Of California Fire Hold Grim Lessons, Warnings


Sep. 18--STEVENSON -- The town of Paradise, Calif., spent years preparing for a catastrophic fire.

Paradise was divided into 14 zones for orderly evacuations. Skyway Road, one of the major routes leading to nearby Chico, was designated for "contra-flow," meaning authorities could turn the road into a one-way evacuation route.

"As good as all the planning was, it was totally overwhelmed by the events of Nov. 8," Paradise Mayor Jody Jones said during Tuesday's meeting of transportation commissions from Washington, Oregon and California at Skamania Lodge.

Jones was part of a panel discussion on rural emergency access and shared the presentation table with Chris Branch, an Okanogan County commissioner, and Matt Marheine, deputy director of the Oregon Office of Emergency Management. But it was the mayor's account of the horrific fire that quickly turned her small town in the Sierra Nevada foothills into hell on Earth that dominated Tuesday's discussion, even though many aspects had little to do with transportation.

At 6:30 a.m. Nov. 8, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. transmission lines, about 8 miles from Paradise, sparked what became known as the Camp Fire. It would be the deadliest, most destructive fire in California history, killing 86 people, destroying 12,000 homes and displacing 26,000 residents.

High winds propelled the fire toward Paradise, which it reached in only 90 minutes.

"Those winds were blowing softball chunks of fire pretty much all at once," Jones said.

By 9:30 a.m., cell towers were burning, causing communications to begin failing, Jones said. By late morning, the town's emergency operations center, where the response should have been planned and coordinated, had to be evacuated as fire raged throughout Paradise, she said.

"There really was very little firefighting in town," she said. "They were focused on getting people out, which is what they needed to be doing."

Evacuation efforts were stymied because not enough residents had signed up to receive emergency alerts on their cellphones. Routes out of Paradise were blocked by trees and utility poles that fell after being consumed by surging flames.

"There were abandoned cars that also were blocking roads, many of which had run out of gas," Jones said.

A lack of traffic coordination and control in Chico exacerbated already clogged evacuation routes, Jones said. What typically was a 20-minute drive to Chico took residents as long as four hours, she said.

"And they were surrounded by fire, most of the time," she said.

Some residents "sheltered in place" in the town," Jones said. Emergency responders did an amazing job keeping them from becoming fatalities, she said.

By 2:30 p.m., most of Paradise had been destroyed, despite the town's concerted efforts to develop an emergency plan, distribute information to residents and conduct regular drills, she said.

"Eighty-six people perished in the fire," Jones said. "If we had not done that, it would have been in the thousands."

The Camp Fire demonstrated the effectiveness of 2008 changes to California's building code for fire-prone areas, Jones said. Fifty-eight percent of homes in the fire's path built after 2008 were largely undamaged. Only 9 percent of the homes built before the code changes were unscathed.

Jones said the community is taking steps in the fire's aftermath, including working with utility companies to underground lines along public and private roads, eliminating roadside ditches and long dead-end streets, and providing emergency sirens that can be heard throughout the town.

"They won't tell people what's happening, but they will tell them something's going on," she said.

Jones said she and others are working to tell communities about their experiences.

"We do think we have some information that would be helpful and could save lives in the future," she said.

Others, however, have pointed fingers at Paradise and other local officials for preparation before and response during the Camp Fire.

A Los Angeles Times investigation characterized the fire as "utterly predictable." Paradise officials failed to learn lessons from previous rapidly moving fires and never thought a fire would reach the town. The newspaper reported that Paradise failed to develop plans to evacuate the entire community at once and even narrowed parts of Skyway Road, from four to two lanes, to improve pedestrian safety and boost commerce.


(c)2019 The Columbian (Vancouver, Wash.)

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Tim Hunt's picture
Tim Hunt on Sep 19, 2019 1:17 pm GMT

At times it is hard to image what people face in situations like this till it is editorialize into words. I spent 40 years in the utility industry from generation, transmission to operations and could never imagine ever seeing soft ball sized fireballs being hurled through the wind and yet know it is ever so possible. Much was learned from this event and hope emergency workers & government wll study the facts and apply the information effectively. Government and Enviromental groups also must understand Utilities must be allowed to practice    effective vegitation managment and remove potential hazards at all costs.

Food for thought: Utilities can practice outage coordination on windy days but wind and wire can still create static electricity that could possibly start fire.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 19, 2019 1:22 pm GMT

Well said, Tim. Sometimes it's so important for the technical challenge to be reframed as the human impact stories that they create. Helps make the challenges real and motivate even more the solving of them. 

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