Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on March 1, 2019.

‘The sum of all fears’

Fire officials publish preliminary findings after a visit to the California town destroyed in the camp fire

BY ANGELO VERZONI

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The Camp Fire, which raged through Butte County, California, in November, was “the sum of all fears” in the wildland/urban interface.

That was the conclusion of a recent report by the Western Fire Chiefs Association (WFCA) following a visit by WFCA members, local fire officials, and other wildfire safety experts, including three NFPA staff members, to the northern California towns affected by the Camp Fire about two months after it burned.

The report, “The Camp Fire Tour,” summarizes the preliminary findings of the visit and details the extreme conditions that led to the Camp Fire’s severity, primarily in the towns of Paradise and Magalia. The Camp Fire killed 86 people, making it the deadliest wildfire in the state’s recorded history.

The report also paints a picture contradictory to some media reports that surfaced in the weeks following the blaze.

While the town of Paradise’s emergency evacuation plan, for example, faced scrutiny after the fire, with some residents telling media outlets that emergency evacuation notifications came too late or not at all, the WFCA report lauded the town’s evacuation plan, which was modeled after the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ “Ready, Set, Go!” program.

“While 86 people lost their lives, [we’re] fully convinced it would have been worse if we did not have these plans,” a portion of the report written by Paradise fire officials reads. “We had practiced the plans based on fire scenarios and routinely met to review, update, and discuss the plans and evacuation process.”

As prepared as the town might have been, the conditions of the fire proved overwhelming. Early detection would have had no impact, the report indicates, because the fire originated in a canyon out of site from cameras. Even residents who had cleared their properties of vegetation and other fuel sources found their yards covered in dry pine needles because of the area’s high density of ponderosa pines, coupled with high winds. “Ponderosa pines drop about [one-third] of their needles each year,” the report says. “It was mid fall and needles were being blown out of the trees creating a fine fuel bed receptive to embers. Even those who had raked their yards had a new fuel bed due to the wind.”

Included on the tour of Butte County were Michele Steinberg, director of NFPA’s Wildfire Division; Ray Bizal, NFPA regional operations director; and Tom Welle, manager of NFPA’s Wildfire Division Denver office. Steinberg wrote about the experience in a blog on January 28.

“The region has enormous challenges ahead in recovery,” Steinberg said. “Even residents whose homes survived are still out of their homes due to benzene in the drinking water. Small business owners whose physical locations survived have few customers left in the area. The wholesale destruction of thousands of residences in a region where the housing market is already squeezed and contractors are in short supply predict a long and difficult road ahead. There are a number of positive efforts occurring locally to support those made homeless by the event and related recovery needs, and insurers are busy providing claims services to help people back on their feet financially. But everyone should understand the magnitude of the destruction and the huge challenges that the whole community faces for the future.”

Read more of what Steinberg had to say about her visit to Paradise on NFPA Xchange at community.nfpa.org, and read the full WFCA report online at wildfireinitiative.org/programs.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Michele Steinberg