I’ve never been one to read the last page of a novel first, and I really hate spoilers, but I’m going to tell you how this week’s cover story predicting a devastating Ridge fire ends: “It’s going to happen, and it’s going to be bad.”
That’s the last line of a story published in this newspaper 25 years, two months and 27 days before the Camp Fire. We’ve reprinted that piece this week to remind readers, local officials and public-safety personnel that warnings of a catastrophic firestorm were sounded a quarter century ago—probably earlier than that, too.
As you’ll see from our vintage-looking cover—a re-creation of the one that was printed back on Aug. 12, 1993—we really want readers to get a sense for the era.
I was a teenager back then and had never been to the Ridge, though I had visited family in Chico my whole life. I didn’t make my first trip to Paradise until I was in college; friends took me to an amazing, not-so-secret, lagoon-like swimming hole along the west branch of the Feather River.
It wasn’t until I worked as a staff writer at the Chico Enterprise-Record—where I served for about a year as the beat reporter for the Ridge—that I learned about the fire threat in the so-called wildland-urban interface.
In the short time I spent reporting in Paradise and Magalia—covering politics, water issues and development, among other things—I wrote several stories about the efforts to pave Forest Highway 171 (aka upper Skyway), wood-chipping programs and other fire-related pieces. I also recall some of my colleagues referring to the region as a giant cul-de-sac, predicting the traffic jam that would occur in the event of a blaze.
Never did I imagine the scenario that unfolded on Nov. 8, when the Camp Fire struck. But former Butte County Supervisor Gordon Thomas sure did—he’s the primary source in the quarter-century-old CN&R piece, and I’m amazed it’s so spot-on.
The story is eerily prophetic, beginning with a fictional narrative of evacuees who made it to the valley floor in Chico to see an orange glow up the Skyway. Later in the piece, a local fire professional describes a scenario in which wind-driven flames spread a blaze “building to building until three quarters of the Lower Ridge lies in ashes.”
And while the aforementioned invented intro predicts an estimated 9,000 resulting casualties, keep in mind that more than 1,200 people were listed as missing a little over a week after the Camp Fire broke out.
This week, international insurance company Munich RE reported that 2018 was the world’s fourth costliest year since 1980 in terms of natural disasters. Topping the list at $16.5 billion in losses—including $12 billion covered by insurance—was the Camp Fire.
Those figures and the loss of life must be part of the conversation during the rebuilding process—a complex effort to balance future evacuation and fire mitigation needs with the environmental attributes that made the area such a beloved place to live. I’m not sure what the Ridge of the future will look like, but it certainly helps to see it through this lens into the past.