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A lesson not learned 

In 1977 I was a seasonal wildland and structural firefighter with the Butte County Fire Department. Compared to today, we lived in the dark ages of firefighting resources. We had no fire hydrants in most of the areas we protected. When a barn or homestead burned, we drafted water out of canals or shuttled water from distant sources to the engines making a direct attack on the fire. One of the biggest fires that year was a fire threatening the town of Paradise. Strike teams were brought in from around the state, and at one point, 50 fire engines, with red lights and sirens screaming, convoyed on Highway 99 toward the town of Paradise, as wildfire threatened it from two sides. Paradise lived that week and for another 41 years, suffering a few more close calls in the interim. Evacuation plans were developed and exercised, but no plan is perfect.

City officials assumed a fire would not exceed historical norms: No wildfire had crossed the Feather River in the previous 50 years. They assumed they would be able to conduct an orderly evacuation, people departing by sectors: a simultaneous evacuation of all sectors was not considered. In 2009, a main evacuation route was narrowed by installing traffic-calming measures to slow the speed of traffic moving through the city center. Several citizens objected, reminding city officials that this road was a major fire evacuation route, but their concerns were dismissed.

On Nov. 8, 2018, the Camp Fire started after a large PG&E power transmission line suffered a catastrophic failure when a bracket holding a powerline literally broke off, dropping the line and igniting tinder-dry brush.

Paradise is a town within a pine forest on top of a plateau. Due to the height of the trees, you can't necessarily see the progress of a wildfire quite as easily as we are accustomed to in SLO County. Thus, many residents didn't know how serious the fire threatening the survival of the town was. First arriving fire crews were stymied by the origin of the fire as it was initially inaccessible to their equipment. The delay allowed the fire to grow, fed by seasonal easterly winds and blowing embers.

The embers were causing spotting of fires hundreds of yards ahead and eventually over a mile ahead of the main body of fire. A blizzard of embers began to engulf the smaller communities around Paradise, starting spot fires and roof fires that turned into full-blown structure fires. The evacuation plans so carefully developed and practiced soon broke down as emergency notifications failed for a variety of reasons. Over half the local residents never received emergency notification to evacuate.

Paradise was a last stop in life for many of its residents. Many were elderly, disabled, and of low income. Paradise in the 1970s was a place many people could still afford to live, and it celebrated its "live and let live" climate. Mandatory clearances for fire safety around homes were mostly suggestions, water supplies were scarce, and during the fire, largely failed. The firestorm melted pumps, valves, and cell towers ... crippling the water supply and communications.

Those who did evacuate encountered bottlenecks on narrow roads proving fatal for many. Many never made it out of their homes, especially elderly and disabled. More than once, emergency dispatchers had to tell residents that nobody could reach them because they waited too long to evacuate.

The Paradise Fire killed 86 people and destroyed nearly 14,000 homes and was the largest loss-of-life wildfire in the state's history. It was not unprecedented, unforeseen, or unavoidable, as local and state officials initially described it. It was certainly not unforeseen. Many small towns like Paradise were obliterated by wildfire in the late 19th century. The Peshtigo, Wisconsin, fire of 1871 killed 1,500 people in a firestorm. Wallace, Idaho, was destroyed by wildfire, killing hundreds, and the Big Burn of 1910 killed 77 firefighters. We had simply forgotten lessons of the past and assumed that such things simply would never be permitted to happen in the 21st century. Such arrogance!

The Los Angeles Times documented that Paradise "ignored repeated warnings of the risk its residents faced, crafted no plan to evacuate all areas at once"—not especially realistic given the road network and fuel density—"and did not sound citywide orders to flee even as a hail of fire rained down."

In the end, the worst case scenario occurred, predictions of catastrophe manifested, and state and county fire planning documents warning of a wind-driven ember firestorm being the greatest threat to Paradise were validated, albeit at a great cost to life.

Fire season is upon us. We'll be inundated by anecdotal accounts of how climate change is causing these terrible fire seasons. In fact, we're reaping what we sowed with a century of development in high-risk areas and counter-productive fire suppression and wildfire management/prevention policies. The Paradise firestorm (population similar to that of Atascadero) was predicted and is likely to be repeated across the West. Δ

Al Fonzi had a 35-year military career, serving in both the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Respond with a letter to the editor emailed to [email protected].

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