The ironically titled “Downtown Paradise Safety Project” may have created a deadly evacuation bottleneck.
We have all seen videos of the horror of the exodus from the town of Paradise, CA during the November 8th, 218 #CampFire, with many people reporting gridlock like conditions that caused them to abandon vehicles and run on foot from the fire.
When I lived in Paradise between 1989 and 1994, I worried about the potential for a firestorm and evacuation disaster, and when the Oakland Hills Firestorm of 1991 happened, I remember being on my property off Nunneley Road, and hearing the dry north wind howling in the trees. I knew then that it would not take much to create a wildfire disaster there just like in the Oakland Hills. It was then that I decided to move back to Chico.
That was back in the time before the “North escape route” was completed via the old Forest road 171, which was finally straightened and paved in 2013. According to the Chico Enterprise Record:
The Upper Skyway was a twisting gravel road between Inskip and Butte Meadows in 2008, when the Humboldt Fire burned into Paradise. Residents and local officials had been agitating for years to get the road improved to a level that a typical passenger car could navigate it, without success.
But the fire that burned 74 homes in southern Paradise and at one point closed all the roads out of town to the south, emphasized the need for another way off the ridge.
The Humboldt fire closed the escape roads going downhill south from Paradise, and that was the impetus to finish the north “escape route” road, but perhaps in doing so, residents and town officials may have lulled themselves in a false sense of safety, so much so, that they created a deadly bottleneck on the major southbound escape road, the “Skyway”, impeding the evacuation.
From the Sacramento Bee story ‘The whole town’s on fire’: Butte wildfire grows to 20,000 acres as residents flee on foot
“There were flames to the left of me and flames to the right,” said Wendell Whitmore, a 62-year-old resident who tried to drive out of Paradise on Bille Road at around 9 a.m. “The flames were up in the trees, all the houses were on fire. The fire was three feet from my car. The rubber around the windows was melting. That’s when I decided to get out.”
Whitmore said he abandoned his 2005 Subaru Outback just as another motorist backed into him and the fire began burning under the hood of his car. He and others ran toward Skyway looking for safety as police shouted orders to get out.
By then, he said, it had taken him two hours to drive three quarters of a mile on two-lane Bille Road, where he estimated 40 cars were abandoned in front of him and another 150 were behind him.
When he made it to Skyway on foot, he saw thousands of cars trying to drive six across to get out.
Here are some examples from newspaper photographers of vehicles abandoned along the Skyway.
The major evacuation artery, the “Skyway” became un-driveable, and became a death trap for people further up because traffic came to a standstill. From the San Jose Mercury News:
It’s the terror, the sheer terror of being stuck in a vehicle in bumper to bumper traffic with flames closing in and nowhere to go that haunts them most.
On the main road that locals affectionately called “the Skyway to Paradise,” many of those trapped in the nerve-wracking slow-motion evacuation Thursday morning said their goodbyes, whispered their prayers and wondered, is this the end?
You may have heard that some people that could not get to major evacuation arteries, and burned to death in their cars. Over 200 people are still missing as of this writing.
We all ask, why? Why did the evacuation turn into a standstill traffic jam?
The mayor of the town, who has come under fire for the problems with the evacuation, said this after the first town council meeting held after the fire, in the council chambers of Chico, CA: (bold mine)
Paradise residents held a town hall meeting in nearby Chico Tuesday evening, with Paradise City Hall out of commission with no running power or water.
Emotions ran high at the first such meeting since the historic wildfire began.
Paradise resident Michael Orr called for Mayor Jody Jones’ resignation, blaming her for a chaotic evacuation and a death toll in the dozens and still climbing.
“Well people died, yes. It did not go perfectly,” Jones remarked to CBS San Francisco after the meeting. “I don’t know that we could have had a plan that was better, though. The reason we couldn’t get everyone out is because you can’t fit 26,000 people on the roads all at the same time.”
Yes, there’s some truth to that, but what many people don’t know is that when Jones was vice-mayor in 2014, she supported a plan that reduced the major evacuation artery, the Skyway from 4 lanes to 2 lanes in the downtown Paradise business district.
Tragically, that may have led to an evacuation bottleneck during the Camp Fire, which resulted in people fleeing their own cars, because they could run faster than they could drive.
Compare these two Google Earth aerial photos of downtown Paradise from 2014 and 2018 to see what happened in the downtown business district:
Here is a graphic I prepared from a Google Earth Street view (location noted in figure 3) that shows the reduction of 4 lanes to 2 to add parking spaces, and block the outside lanes with corner curb extensions, known as “bulb-outs”. The view is of the same section of downtown:
In an April 2016 story in the Paradise Post, there was this telling description of the changes that occurred in 2015 to reduce Skyway from 4 lanes to 2 lanes in the downtown business district:(bold mine)
A bit of overnight work and, ta-da, downtown Skyway has a second northbound lane. Crews from Chrisp Company got to work Thursday night to change the road for better traffic flow. The change is in answer to complaints of bottleneck traffic and drivers using parking spaces as a travel lane.
The extra lane starts at Wildwood Lane, crosses Elliott Road and connects to the existing two-lane road in front of the Paradise Veterans Hall.
From there, Skyway remains two lanes until northbound Bille Road, and then it is a single lane up through the Upper Ridge.
Historically, Skyway was two lanes in both directions, though traffic flow became such that Paradise officials likened the road to having a freeway running through the middle of town. The town’s solution was to restripe the road to force traffic to slow down.
By the end of 2014, the town completed a project that eliminated the four-lane configuration in favor of a three-lane configuration – one lane in each direction and a turn lane.
According to reports from the Town of Paradise, the project did reduce traffic speed and injury accidents, but also caused congestion.
The biggest problem was near the Skyway and Elliott Road intersection.
Some drivers would simply use the on-street parking spaces as a way to drive past the long line of cars waiting at the traffic light.
After some careful study, the town opted to eliminate those on-street parking spaces and convert them to a legal driving lane.
Unfortunately, elsewhere on the Skyway downtown business district section, and as we see in the Figures 1-4 Google Earth photos, those parking spaces remained.
You’d think the city planners, and council members would have had a clue back then, that the lane reduction that “caused congestion” would be a huge liability in the event of a fire evacuation, something both residents and town officials worried about for decades. Perhaps with the completion of the “north escape road” in 2013 they lulled themselves into a sense of escape route adequacy?
In the 2015 report presented to the Paradise Town Council ironically titled Downtown Paradise Safety Project, nobody was discussing fire evacuation issues. Instead, they were discussing things like pedestrian safety, and additional parking,
They seemed oblivious to the danger they created with this comparison in slide 13 from the report:
Full slide show is available here: https://www.townofparadise.com/index.php/forms-and-documents/public-works/1332-dpsp-annual-report-presentation-slides/file
You can watch the meeting where they presented the report here on YouTube:
You don’t have to be a certified civil engineer to know that if you reduce 4 lanes to 2 lanes, you are going to cause traffic congestion, and in the event of a fire evacuation, that’s going to create an additional dangerous bottleneck that will impede the evacuation.
Further, it seems mind-boggling to me, that they traded some non-injury fender bender accidents during 5pm rush hour, and additional parking spaces for an unimpeded 4 lane evacuation route.
It seems a clear case of failure to remember what the worst case scenario could be, and when it came, people died.
I’m sure the lawyers will sort it out.
Note: While I’m officially “on hiatus” awhile, I wrote this story while suffering from insomnia, due to the stress that the #CampFire has caused me, and my employees that lost their homes. I felt I had to tell this story, because I had remarked to the general manager of KPAY radio (where I do weather reports) on the morning of November 8th, that “if they don’t get the Skyway opened up to 4 lanes, people are going to be burned alive in their cars”. This issue was firmly on my mind then. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened. – Anthony