Inferno in Paradise

Photo by Charles Finlay

As the Camp Fire ravaged the Ridge communities on Nov. 8, 2018, the view from Chico was of a “horrible orange” eastern sky.

Editor’s note: This eerily prophetic story appeared in this newspaper on Aug. 12, 1993, a few months after a fire drill on the Ridge. The article begins with a fictional narrative that predicts a wind-driven firestorm capable of killing thousands of Ridge residents—a warning sounded 25 years before the Camp Fire took the lives of at least 86 people and destroyed nearly 19,000 structures. It is accompanied by photos CN&R staffers and contributors took of the Ridge and surrounding areas that were charred during the Nov. 8 blaze.

Small clusters of evacuees stand beside their overloaded vehicles in the Fred Meyer parking lot, gazing up at the horrible orange sky to the east and talking about why they were able to get out when so many of their friends and neighbors were not.

The down-canyon winds are still blowing hard—gusts of up to 50 mph, one man says. The temperature is well over 90 degrees.

“God, when those houses along the rim went up it was like they were exploding!” says a white-haired man standing beside an expensive-looking motorcycle. “Hope they got all the patients out of that nursing home across from us. If I didn’t own this bike, me and Sandy would still be up there stuck in traffic!”

“We were lucky, too,” replies a young woman with a tiny, fur-singed puppy in her arms. “We got out the back way through Butte Meadows before Skyway got jammed up near Lovelock.”

They fall silent. Everybody seems to be thinking the same thing.

“How many, you figure?” the white-haired man finally asks.

Nobody answers. It’s a question they don’t want to contemplate.

“I hear it could be as many as 9,000,” somebody offers at last.

Really? Nine thousand people burned to death by a fire on the Paradise Ridge?

“That’s right, 9,000,” says Butte County Supervisor Gordon Thomas, whose Fifth District jurisdiction includes Paradise and the Upper Ridge.

“A CDF [California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention] study says 50 percent of the population in an area like the [Paradise] Pines could die if fire conditions were bad enough,” he continues. “Well, if you take the Pines/Magalia population of about 18,000 and divide it by two, that’s what you’ll come up with.”

Photo by Charles Finlay

Firefighters spread throughout the burn area in November, putting out spot fires that smoldered for weeks.

There weren’t even 9,000 casualties in the Battle of Gettysburg, Thomas is fond of pointing out. Not only that, 9,000 casualties would make the Great Ridge Fire the worst natural disaster in American history.

Sure, the image of all those body bags lined up along the smoking, wreckage-choked streets of Paradise is a real shocker. But shock value is exactly what Thomas is after.

“People accuse me of creating a panic, but I’d rather have a panic now than during an actual fire,” says the feisty politico, who made fire preparedness one of his chief campaign issues in the last election.

Local firefighting officials are more cautious with their warnings. Neither Battalion Chief John Hawkins of the Butte-CDF Fire Center in Magalia nor his boss, Butte-CDF Unit Chief and Fire Warden Steve Brown, would endorse Thomas’ body count figures.

The study Thomas has been citing is based on data from the aftermath of the Oakland Hills Fire, they explain, warning that there are too many variables at play here to make even a very general casualty forecast.

Both of them seem to agree with the direness of Thomas’ assessment, however.

“There’s no question about it,” says Brown. “A fire of that magnitude could definitely happen on the Ridge.”

“Yes, we could have a very bad fire,” says Hawkins, “and it’s certainly possible that people would die.”

These guys have spent half their lives learning everything there is to learn about wildfires—from the conditions that breed them to the military-like strategies used to fight them. Listening carefully to their cautious, technical language, one can’t help but realize they are predicting a disaster almost too horrible to imagine.

Ridge topography, with its steep canyons and narrow plateaus, makes access extremely difficult for fire crews and ground equipment, they say. It also creates natural bottlenecks where fleeing residents could be trapped by walls of flame.

During wildfires, this sort of terrain can create a “chimney effect” where flames go roaring down the canyons and swirling up the ridges at terrible speeds.

“If you look at a satellite photo, all those canyons look almost like daggers pointing at the Ridge,” says Brown.

Compounding geographical problems of access and evacuation is the lack of decent roads in and out of the area. The problem is extreme indeed on the Upper Ridge, where the Skyway provides the only way out.

Photo by Meredith j. Cooper

Many of the roads throughout the Camp Fire burn area remained closed for weeks while PG&E and other work crews cleaned up downed power poles and lines.

Supervisor Thomas can really get wound up on this one. In fact, it’s his pet cause. “Can you imagine a whole line of elderly ladies in Cadillacs on the upper Skyway during a fire?” he asks. “And you can forget about those gravel roads. You aren’t going to outrun a fire on those.”

Traffic bottlenecks are everywhere you look on the Skyway, Thomas contends, particularly along the narrow, two-lane section that sits atop Magalia Reservoir’s earthfill dam, which geologists have already judged unstable.

Brown said that during a massive, interagency fire drill held on the Ridge in mid-June, traffic all over the upper Skyway ground to a halt. The jam-up was caused merely by the introduction of firefighting equipment, mind you, as there were no evacuations involved in the drill.

Brown said Paradise has far better roads than the Upper Ridge, but many residential streets in the older parts of town are nothing more than common driveways constructed when lots were divided and subdivided.

In the old days, it seems, building regulations were rather lax, and these narrow, twisting rights of way eventually became streets.

One stalled vehicle during a fire, and that’s all she wrote.

“Butte County helped to cause this problem, there’s no doubt about it,” asserts Thomas. “They shouldn’t have allowed all this growth without improving access.”

If the winds are blowing and the weather is hot and dry, the arid jungle of brush and chaparral growing in both the wildlands and the densely developed tracts of Paradise and Magalia could turn a Ridge fire into another Oakland Hills—with even more fatalities.

For one thing, there haven’t been any major wildfires up here since the population first bloomed. For another, residents clearly enjoy having their houses surrounded by pine trees and manzanita. And who can blame them?

Firefighters are very conscious of dangers that would arise in battling a Ridge blaze, however. In the event of a fire, people who choose to live among the deer and quail might find themselves out of luck.

“The public needs to understand that I’m not going to kill any of my firefighters to save a house somebody built at the end of a long dirt road with a deck hanging out over the canyon and brush growing all around,” says Brown.

People who live in newer developments would fare better, though many recently built homes also have brush crowding in on all sides. Bay Area retiree Jack Buelow, who moved into his brand-new Paradise Pines home on Adrian Drive just last month, has a tsunami-size wall of chaparral looming just beyond his backyard.

Buelow and his family moved into temporary quarters on the Lower Ridge last summer while their house was under construction and learned the severity of the fire danger around here only after witnessing a couple of near-miss wildfires off the lower Skyway. He plans to push the brush back a bit farther, he says, though current fire regulations don’t require him to.

“I’m probably going to clear out that stuff next door, too, even though it doesn’t belong to me,” Buelow says, pointing to a swatch of brush growing near his side yard.

Brown said a wildfire on the Lower Ridge would gobble up fuel that is sparser and hotter-burning than these 20- to 30-foot walls of chaparral, which press in on all sides of Magalia and Paradise Pines.

Does this mean the fire danger in Paradise is less than that in the Upper Ridge?

Not necessarily. “If the conditions are bad, the fuel problem isn’t just the vegetation but the structures themselves,” says Brown, describing a nightmarish situation in which wind-driven flames simply hop from building to building until three quarters of the Lower Ridge lie in ashes.

The threat of this is worse in Paradise, Brown notes, where many of the structures were built before current regulations took effect. Wood siding, shake shingles and unenclosed, nonfireproofed wooden decks make tasty hors d’oeuvres for hungry fires.

The Ridge has more characteristics predisposing it to a disastrous fire than just its steep topography, its poor roads and its dense tangles of volatile fuel.

A large population of less-agile and nonambulatory aged and disabled people will definitely make evacuation efforts more touch-and-go. And the scarcity of water in certain areas—coupled with inaccurate maps and poorly signed roadways—will certainly hinder firefighters’ efforts to save houses.

But these are all more or less fixed characteristics, observes Hawkins. The changeable factor here is the weather.

“Wind is what keeps firefighters from putting out fires,” he says. “The real danger to the Ridge is a fire that blows along under an east wind, the way it happened in Oakland.”

This kind of wind, known in firefighting circles as foehn, blows from high pressures to low pressures and high to low elevations, compressing and heating the air.

Hawkins said these foehn winds blow down the Ridge about 30 days out of the year and are most dangerous in the fall, when the days are hot and the brush is explosively dry.

But aren’t these fire officials always telling us how deadly the fire threat is in any given year, no matter what the conditions are? If there’s a drought, we’ve got to be extra careful because the fuel is so dry, and if it’s rained a lot, we’ve got to be extra careful because the fuel is so high.

Brown just laughs. “All I can say is, summer comes to California once a year, and it’s always bad. We’ve had a good summer so far, but that could change in one afternoon.”

Photo by Melissa Daugherty

Over 500 businesses were damaged or destroyed in the Camp Fire.

Is there anything anybody can do to lessen all this “specter of impending doom” stuff?

Thomas thinks so. His prime solution is a proposed extension of Highway 191 (now Clark Road) up the Skyway and over Butte Creek to Highway 32. Such a project would entail a 4.5-mile stretch of new highway and a new, four-lane bridge, beginning at the point where Doe Mill Road starts its twisting descent into upper Butte Creek Canyon and ending somewhere near Forest Ranch.

Fire officials Hawkins and Brown agree that such an extension would not only create another evacuation exit, but also enable firefighters to bring equipment in from Lassen-area CDF stations. These are fairly close to Magalia as the crow flies, but they’re hours away via the current route through Chico.

So who’s gonna pay? “The state will pay for it,” says Thomas. “After all, our county pays three times more in gas taxes than we use in highway funds. All that money is being used to build freeways down in L.A. instead of being spent on the things we need up here.”

But Jon Clark, director of the Butte County Association of Governments, recently told a Paradise Post reporter that the project might not get underway for another 20 years. There are other pressing needs for state and federal highway funds, he is quoted as saying.

Thomas fights on. His other pet goal, a $40,000 brush abatement project, would create a much stricter clearance ordinance and pay for the personnel to enforce it.

“All you have to do is look around you,” he says. “There’s brush growing right up against some of these houses. We’ve got to do something about this!”

The brush abatement proposal probably won’t win him many friends among the “don’t tell me what to do with my property” folks. But Thomas says he’s already alienated these people with his get-tough stance on front yard junk collectors.

“I’m a right-wing conservative,” he explains, “and I certainly believe that whatever you do on your own property is your own business. Up to a point, that is. But once it starts to harm other people, the law has to step in.”

Wait a minute here … a right-wing conservative? Maybe all this fire hysteria stuff is simply an extension of the old commies-under-the-bed paranoiac behavior these guys used to thrive on.

Let’s ask someone who’s gone head-to-head with Thomas on other issues. How about Ridge resident Jean Crist, a self-described “slow-growther” who presides over an environmental advocacy group known as Protect Our Watershed?

But Crist says Supervisor Thomas is right on track when he’s pushing the great dangers of fire on the Ridge. She expressed doubt that the body count associated with such a disaster would be anywhere near as high as Thomas is predicting, however—mostly because she saw first-hand how quickly fire personnel responded, from all directions and with myriad equipment, when an arsonist recently touched off a number of small fires near the Magalia home she shares with her husband.

As for the extension of Highway 191 over Butte Creek Canyon, Crist says she’s definitely in favor of it, but only if the bridge has two lanes, not four. Advocates of rampant growth often use threats of fire to push development, she contends, and she sees building a four-lane bridge in the area as a threat to Ridge tranquility and environmental stability.

Photo by Melissa Daugherty

Flames were present on the Ridge for days after the Camp Fire ripped through the region.

“We’re also finding that loggers are using [arguments that they’re lessening] fire danger to strip our area of valuable trees,” she says. “When they cut them down, they lop off all the branches and leave them on the ground or in the slash piles—which, if anything, makes the fire danger worse.”

So far, the ability of crack firefighting crews to pounce on small brush fires before they turn into full-scale infernos is probably all that’s kept the area from becoming a moonscape these past few decades.

Crist has described witnessing the hair-trigger preparedness of area emergency teams, but Brown says fire conditions on that particular day were very cooperative.

“It was fairly early in the morning with almost no wind,” he said. “If the arsonist had done his thing with a 15 mph wind, we’d still be mopping up.”

In other words, all the men and equipment in California won’t be able to stop a fire on the Ridge if some drooling cretin gets weird with a pack of matches on a bone-dry day in October with 100-degree temperatures and 30 mph winds.

Obviously, though, the more firefighters and equipment we’ve got up there, the better. And one of the best weapons against a catastrophic Ridge fire, argues who else but Thomas, is the California Conservation Corps crew stationed at the Butte Fire Center in Magalia.

This outfit, with its three 17-person firefighting crews and accompanying equipment, narrowly escaped the state budgetary ax a couple of years back and remains in the area only because our elected officials tend to scream bloody murder every time somebody talks about closing it down.

“This is our bright point up here, our hope,” says Thomas, who expresses great admiration for local fire departments but doubts their ability to respond in time once a really bad fire takes off.

During the aforementioned fire drill in June—during which 600 people and 60 fire engines battled a simulated fire driven by relatively mild, 10 mph winds—fire crews were unable to knock down the blaze to the supervisor’s satisfaction.

“Steve Brown and I sat up on Adrian Drive and watched the fire burn right over us,” he said. “We told the fire to take an hour off and let the firefighters catch up with it. A real fire wouldn’t be quite so accommodating.”

Fire crews reported artificially low response times, Thomas contends, because crews were alerted to the drill in advance and parked their fire engines in strategic locations before it began.

Nonetheless, Thomas was impressed with the ability of the various agencies involved to communicate with each other and plot strategy together. “Everything went like clockwork as a drill,” he says, “but as a test it was a complete failure, in my opinion.”

Failure or not, until somebody cuts loose some funding and builds that highway extension, preparedness is about all they’ve got up there.

Sure, Thomas is no doubt pumping this thing for all the political exposure he can muster, just as any elected official would. But anybody who talks with him will find that he’s genuinely horrified at the thought of all those casualties and frustrated at the failure of so many people to take heed.

As for the dire predictions of our fire officials, these people aren’t crying wolf. It’s going to happen, and it’s going to be bad.

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