Here’s how Paradise ignored warnings and became a deathtrap

A very comprehensive story from the LA Times which repeats the points made Anthony’s previous post about the narrowing of evacuation routes.

From The LA Times

By Paige St. John, Joseph Serna and Rong-Gong Lin II

Dec 30, 2018 | 3:00 AM | Paradise, Calif.

The fate of Paradise was cast long before a windstorm last month fueled the deadliest fire in California history.

The ridge settlement was doomed by its proximity to a crack in the mighty wall of the Sierra Nevada, a deep canyon that bellowed gale-force winds.

It was doomed by its maze of haphazard lanes and dead-end roads that paid no heed to escape.

Infrared image

Infrared image (Jon Schleuss / Los Angeles Times)

It remained doomed because for all the preparations community leaders made, they practiced for tamer wildfires that frequently burned to the edge of town and stopped — not a wind-driven ember storm.

In the aftermath of the Camp fire — 86 dead, more than 13,900 homes destroyed and Paradise decimated — local and state officials said the tragedy was unforeseen and unavoidable, an “unprecedented” monster of fire.

In truth, the destruction was utterly predictable, and the community’s struggles to deal with the fire were the result of lessons forgotten and warnings ignored. The miracle of the tragedy, local officials now concede, is how many people escaped.

A Los Angeles Times investigation found that Paradise ignored repeated warnings of the risk its residents faced, crafted no plan to evacuate the area all at once, entrusted public alerts to a system prone to fire, and did not sound citywide orders to flee even as a hail of fire rained down.

Butte County grand jury warned that Paradise faced disastrous consequences if it did not address capacity limits of its roads.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Historical records show the Camp fire was typical of the catastrophic wind-driven fires responsible for California’s greatest wildfire losses.

A state fire planning document warned in 2005 that Paradise risked an ember firestorm akin to the one that ripped through Berkeley and Oakland 14 years earlier, killing more than two dozen people and destroying more than 2,000 homes. But Paradise officials framed risk in historical terms: In 50 years, no wildfire had crossed the Feather River.

Cars destroyed by the Camp fire in Paradise, Calif.

Cars destroyed by the Camp fire in Paradise, Calif. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

The roads out of Paradise gridlocked within an hour of the first evacuation order, and began moving again only by a herculean effort of firefighters, police, bureaucrats and politicians who rushed to jammed intersections to try to unsnarl the knot, the benefit of having practiced for small fires.

In another three hours, hundreds of residents were trapped deep within town, cut off by flames. The town communications system was dead, as were cell towers. Police radios were crippled.

People jumped from cars and fled on foot. Hundreds sought refuge in parking lots and commercial buildings never intended to be temporary shelters in a firestorm. The remains of scores of residents were found inside the homes they never left.

The disaster occurred despite the fact that Paradise was proactive about preparing for fire, not just with drills and plans, but advertising its warning system, promoting “pack and go” preparations by residents, and even writing fire precautions into public construction projects. City leaders believed no other California community, except perhaps fire-dogged San Diego, was better prepared.

National transportation planners say the town’s destruction should set a new bar for emergency planners in wildfire areas, the way Hurricane Katrina reshaped evacuation planning on the Gulf Coast. But despite vows to create statewide evacuation standards after previous deadly wildfires, California has yet to take action and evacuation planning remains a local responsibility.

The question is more urgent than ever after two wildfire seasons with a staggering death toll: More than 40 killed by fires in wine country, more than 20 dead from the Montecito mudslides.

But experts fear the lessons will go unheeded.

“Memories are very short and people will soon forget how terrible Paradise was,” said Michael Robinson, director of the Center for Innovative Transportation Solutions at Old Dominion University, which helps communities plan for evacuations. “Or they’ll think, ‘It was terrible for Paradise, but it won’t happen to me.'”

An imperfect place

Paradise was built upon a system of volcanic ledges bisected by a fan of deep ravines emptying into the Sacramento Valley.

Developers started with what had been gold mine trails and then apple orchard roads to pave a street system that maximized buildable space the way blood vessels branch into capillaries. There are nearly 100 miles of private roads that dead-end on narrow overlooks and few connector streets.

For more than 38,000 people, access to the outside world came via four roads running south, down finger ridges and through forest canopy. After 2008, a forest road north was paved to provide escape for residents on the upper ridge above Paradise. On the day of the fire, the narrow winding passage jammed and was impassable.

Other historic mining towns in the Sierra Nevada foothills follow similar chaotic, organic layouts.

“The DNA of these towns is such that they’re … set up for disaster,” said Zeke Lunder, a Chico-based fire specialist and geographer whose company helps private landowners and public agencies conduct prescribed burns and prepare for inevitable wildfires.

The population boom for Paradise came in the 1960s and ’70s. Nine out of 10 homes were built before 1990 and most were more than three decades old. Tax assessor records show that only 285 homes were built on the Paradise ridge since new fire codes went into effect in 2008. A Times analysis of assessor records and fire surveys showed those newer structures had a 13% survival rate in the Camp fire, compared with 3% for older homes.

Paradise officials repeatedly told The Times they never envisioned a firestorm reaching the town.

But the 2005 state fire management plan for the ridge, developed in consultation with some of those same Paradise planners, warned that canyon winds posed a “serious threat” to Paradise.

Hospital workers and first responders evacuate patients from the Feather River Hospital as the Camp fire moves through Paradise, Calif.

Hospital workers and first responders evacuate patients from the Feather River Hospital as the Camp fire moves through Paradise, Calif. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

The “greatest risk” was an “east wind” fire, the document said, “the same type of fire that impacted the Oakland Berkeley Hills during the Oct. 20, 1991, firestorm” that killed 25 people.

The plan also warned of “a high potential for large damaging fires and loss of life and property” in the Concow Basin beside Paradise. “Heavy fuel loads, steep terrain, poor access and light flashy fuels create severe fire hazards. The increased population in this area creates a high potential for catastrophic life and property loss.”

Subsequent fire plans created by Butte County and Paradise officials in conjunction with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection use much less direct language. Those plans warn only of “extreme” fire, a step below catastrophic. Canyon wind fires are not mentioned at all.

The town’s vulnerability to fire was evident in 2008, first by the Humboldt fire that destroyed 87 homes west of Paradise, then a week later by a lightning storm that sparked dozens of fires to the east. Residents trying to flee were caught in massive traffic jams, flames burning on both sides of the road as they sat trapped in their cars. One person died of a heart attack.


“Fires mostly driven by upslope or up canyon winds have posed a serious threat to portions of Paradise … The greatest risk to the ridge communities is from an East Wind driven fire that originates above the communities and blows downhill through developed areas. This is the same type of fire that impacted the Oakland Berkeley Hills during the October 20, 1991 firestorm.”

— California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Butte Unit (2005)

see the document

The 2008 fires primed the land around Paradise to burn again, Lunder said, leaving both dead timber and open spaces for thick grass. It was as if the gun had been cocked.

A year later, the Butte County grand jury warned that the town faced disastrous consequences if it did not address the capacity limits of its roads. But Butte County supervisors and planners rejected the panel’s call for a halt to growth until the evacuation problem was met.

The largest paper in Chico ran an editorial concluding that sufficient evacuation roads could not be built, and that those who chose to live in Paradise needed to be aware of the risk they took and be prepared to leave early.

Five of the grand jurors, interviewed by The Times, said the improvements that were made — paving of the forest road and straightening of another route — were inadequate. They felt they had been ignored.

Among them was Walt Sipher, a Chico resident whose sister followed their parents to Paradise and remained on the ridge after they died. Sipher called his sister the morning of the Camp fire to warn her to leave. She told him she didn’t need to — it would be contained.

Judith Sipher was typical of those who perished that day: elderly, infirm with congestive heart failure and ill in bed with the flu. She had a car but seldom drove.

Walt tried driving into Paradise to fetch her, but hit blocked traffic and could not get in. He was summoned weeks later to the old Sears store in Chico to submit a saliva sample for the coroner, who was using DNA to identify the human remains found in his sister’s apartment.

“There are a lot of folks on that ridge, and so few escape routes,” Sipher said. “The possibility was always on everybody’s mind. … You hope it’s not going to be that bad, but it was.”

Narrowing the main road out

The same month the grand jury released its June 2009 report, Paradise was deep into plans to narrow its main evacuation route, Skyway.

Eight pedestrians had been injured by passing cars in the narrow business district, and heavy traffic gave the strip an “expressway” feel. The engineering firm that designed the project said it would reduce the number of vehicles that could pass through and advised against further “improvements,” such as a concrete median, citing the need to remember that the road was a fire evacuation route. More than half the ridge population lived above the strip.

Town recordings show a lone voice of concern at the 2014 council meeting giving final approval to the road narrowing.

“The main thing is fire danger,” said Mildred Eselin, 88. “If the council is searching for a way to diminish the population of Paradise, this would be the way to do it.”

City Fire Chief David Hawks pointed to Paradise’s plan to evacuate neighborhood by neighborhood rather than all at once.

“When everybody tries to evacuate at one time, that’s when the bottleneck creates,” Hawks said.

Not preparing for the worst

Staggered evacuations have been at the heart of Paradise evacuation plans since 1998. An updated plan approved in March 2015 codified decisions after the 2008 fires to convert Skyway into a one-way route during emergencies, doubling its capacity for evacuations. The town practiced its plan during a 2016 drill, part of regular mock disasters, and warned residents ahead of time so they could detour if need be.

Jim Broshears, the city’s emergency management director during the fire and its former longtime fire chief, estimated Paradise’s roads could support the combined evacuation of four zones in two hours — less than a fourth of the population. But city officials told The Times they had no idea how long it would take to empty the entire town. They said they never envisioned a need.

“We trained on what was most probable,” said town engineer Marc Mattox.

Planning for a firestorm would have been “akin to, ‘Is the L.A. Basin in its entirety planned for an earthquake that may devastate the L.A. Basin?'” Hawks said. “I don’t think that’s realistic.

“Obviously, it’s the largest or most devastating fire in California’s history,” he said. “It didn’t get that [way] because it was a normal event.”

Traffic simulation software housed at Old Dominion University and required by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for emergency plans around nuclear power plants was used by The Times to analyze Paradise’s roads. It showed the entire town would need eight hours for residents to leave under blue sky conditions, and more than five hours if Skyway were immediately converted to one-way traffic out.

Those estimates are without a rain of embers, burning obstacles, exploding propane tanks and heat blasts that melted tires. They do not account for roads that were blocked by falling power poles and abandoned cars the day of the fire or the two hours that it took police to establish one-way traffic on Skyway.

Paradise did not make use of such software. Told of The Times’ findings, Mattox said he would have liked to have had that information before Nov. 8. “Every public works planner, every emergency planner across the country should be aware about what those types of models would say for their community,” he said.

Broshears, the architect of most of the town’s emergency plan, and others acknowledge their plans were built around the sort of slower-moving wildfire Paradise had seen in the past.

“Let’s all just be honest,” Broshears said. “We didn’t have a plan that addressed a fire that would be everywhere. …We had an evacuation plan built for a wildland fire. We had a hydrogen bomb. … We were so overmatched.”

Failing to prepare for the larger disaster is hardly unique to Paradise, said former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate.

Flaws in such planning are so common that Fugate describes them as the “deadly sins” of emergency management: Practicing drills that guarantee success; assuming that plans can be scaled up when a massive disaster strikes; relying on government systems to work under pressure; failing to plan how to protect vulnerable populations, such as the elderly; and mistrusting the public, which often leads to not warning the public early enough.

“We plan for what we’re capable of, and we hope it isn’t any worse,” he said.

Read the full story here.

HT/jon and BillJ

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