With each passing day, more life returns to the town of Paradise. By Sunday (Nov. 18), tree service companies and other civilian contractors were nearly as common a sight as law enforcement, emergency personnel and utility workers. Hazmat-suited recovery crews were less ubiquitous in the town’s most densely populated neighborhoods, having left a trail of spray-painted “X”es at property lines and on vehicles to indicate they’d been checked for hazards and human remains. The sun even managed to pierce the smoke layer for most of the day.
Despite the relative order being established and the removal of some major and apparent hazards—like vehicles, trees and power lines blocking roadways—several emergency workers the CN&R encountered that day were quick to warn about persistent and unexpected safety concerns in the devastated area, both seen and unseen.
Those calls for caution were echoed by officials with the state’s Office of Emergency Services (CalOES) who—though aware that Ridge residents are eager to survey their losses and curtail their fears of looters—warned that it may be weeks, or even months, before the area is safe for large numbers of civilians to return.
“I’ve never seen anything quite as devastating, and I was also at the Sonoma and Lake County fires,” CalOES Public Information Officer Robb Mayberry said by phone Monday. Mayberry is based in Sacramento, but visited the scene of the Camp Fire in the days after it began. “Those [earlier incidents] were very bad fires, obviously, and Sonoma was the Mount Everest … we thought. But the devastation from the Camp Fire, and the entire town of Paradise destroyed, I’ve never seen anything close.”
Part of the agency’s role in the fire is coordinating the efforts of thousands of personnel on-site, which include employees from local, state and national agencies, as well as volunteer professionals helping to assess the dangers.
“We’re working as hard as we can, but it’s important we take the time to be sure that it’s absolutely safe before people return,” Mayberry said. “It’s important to remember that the fire is still burning, so we’re also still very much in response mode. It’s a good time to be thinking about recovering and moving forward, but right now there’s still flames, there’s still people missing, there’s still people who perished whose remains are yet to be recovered.”
On the scene Sunday, a CalOES volunteer elaborated on the abundance of unexpected perils in the devastated areas.
“There’s danger in every direction … up, down, everywhere,” he said. “You’ve got heavy things that can fall from above, like trees and chimneys.” Emergency workers are marking dangerous trees in the affected area with spray paint. A message reading “P1” indicates a tree is extremely hazardous and could fall at any time; “P2” trees are hazardous and scheduled for removal.
“You have holes in the ground from underground storage and septic tanks,” he continued. “Anything made out of plastic or fiberglass melts and burns and you’re left with these hidden hazards.”
Even professionals being “deliberately careful” are at risk, he said, noting that a CalOES worker who reportedly fell into septic tank that day was lucky to escape injury.
Burned structures may be more dangerous than they appear, he added: “What’s burnt might look like a flat pile of ash, but with the way floors are framed, people can sink into the ashes,” he said. “These are not the same houses they left, they’re structurally damaged … the floor that was there could be gone and fall hazards remain.”
Other unexpected hazards include gas leaks, and trees and power polls that continue to smolder deep into the ground. Another CalOES worker expressed worry about water mixing with toxic ashes.
“Water lines are broken all over the place and there’s random water everywhere, it’s hard to shut it all off. These ashes contain all of the stuff that we as humans use, including a lot of chemicals, so you have to think about how those chemicals react with water. It’s toxic sludge.”
The worker said he understands residents are eager to return, but that he could not overstate the remaining dangers.
“I’ve got nothing but sympathy for the people that want to get back to their own properties,” he said. “At the same time, we can’t have people coming back to try to get some comfort, only to be hurt or fall into a cesspool. I really feel for all those people, but if they opened the doors up and let the public into a situation like this, I would be very distressed.”