Paradise rebuilds, but fire safety sometimes takes a back seat to economic realities
The smoke has cleared and the bodies have been buried. Demolition crews have hauled off millions of tons of charred homes and cars from the red dirt lots that were once thick with ponderosa pines.
One year after the Camp fire destroyed almost the entire town of Paradise, Calif., there are signs of a rebirth. Twelve houses have been rebuilt and a few hundred more are in the offing. Businesses are reopening. Classes are in session at Paradise High School, and the opening night of football season brought out more spectators than ever.
For the record:
12:02 p.m. Nov. 11, 2019An earlier version of this article misidentified Steve Quarles as a senior scientist with the Institute for Business & Home Safety. Quarles has retired from that post and now serves as a UC Cooperative Extension advisor emeritus.
But it’s a halting recovery, one snagged by challenges that could determine whether the town thrives once again or becomes a ghost of its former self.
It’s a path forward that seems to hinge, in part, on a perplexing question: Just how many fire safety measures can Paradise afford?
While many Paradisians seem to recognize that costly changes are needed to establish a safer, more resilient town, some say they will not — or cannot — come back if new building codes add too much to construction costs.
And the town needs people to come back. Its population has plunged from 27,000 to roughly 2,000, and scores of residents have dispersed across California and the U.S.
So every potential tweak is weighed carefully, with the still-raw emotion and financial constraints of residents always front of mind. Some fire safety proposals have been thrown out, and many other potential plans hang in the balance.
“You have a window where you can get people in your community back,” said Councilman Mike Zuccolillo. “If you make it so difficult to build, they’ll just leave.”
A vision for Paradise
In the first few months after the fire, the town didn’t know where to start. There was no how-to guide for moving forward after the most destructive fire in California history. So with the help of the Butte Strong Fund, a grant program for Camp fire survivors, the Paradise Town Council hired a design firm to develop a long-term recovery plan.
In a series of meetings that filled Paradise Alliance Church, residents came up with a vision for their town. They prioritized an emergency notification system that would reach everyone, a walkable downtown, a public sewer system, a street network that would make evacuations easier and codes and standards that would improve fire resiliency.
That gave council members a blueprint to start looking at potential code changes that went above and beyond the state standards for homes in the wildland-urban interface, where structures mingle with flammable vegetation. The standards require fire-resistant roofing and siding, double-pane windows and sprinkler systems in all new homes. But most of the houses that met those codes still burned in the Camp fire.
It was clear from the get-go that some measures could never be mandated. The idea that all new homes might be constructed with cement, for example, was upsetting to many residents. The predominant building material in Paradise had long been wood, and if people were going to come home, it had to feel like home.
In marathon council meetings this summer, officials debated several code changes that might be more palatable to locals, and a few passed. Gutters, which can clog with dry vegetation that fuel fires, now must be non-combustible. Retaining walls made from highly flammable railroad ties were banned. And Paradise approved burying its utility lines. Pacific Gas & Electric Co., whose equipment sparked the Camp fire, has begun to rebuild the town’s power system underground.
The council is also expected to adopt a California public resource code that requires homes in high-risk fire areas to have 100 feet of “defensible space” — or thinned vegetation — surrounding them. That way, they can stipulate how local government might enforce the requirement, which the state code does not do. It also allows Paradise to add nuance to the code.
Under the town’s proposed amendments, residents would have to maintain a five-foot buffer between their home and any combustible materials, such as mulch and flammable plants, as well as non-pressure-treated decks and wooden fences — which in some cases acted as a wick during the Camp fire, ferrying flames straight to the structure.
“Having this zone right next to a building is pretty important,” said Steve Quarles, a senior scientist with the Institute for Business & Home Safety who studied homes in Paradise after the fire. “No matter what the homeowner does in terms of vegetation management on the property, embers can blow over and ignite that woodpile next to the house.”
Jim Broshears, the city’s emergency management director during the fire and its former fire chief, maintained this kind of firebreak with a ring of brick pavers around his home, and he believes it’s one of the reasons the home is still standing. Broshears promoted the idea at a booth during the town meetings earlier in the year.
It garnered mixed reactions. Broshears said about two-thirds of those he spoke with recognized the need for the five-foot zone. “A certain portion just don’t want the government telling them what to do,” Broshears said.
And in a town whose motto is “In harmony with nature,” asking residents to go without most plants around the immediate perimeter of their home is a hard sell.
Officials are keenly aware of this. They also know that some fire safety measures could tack thousands onto building costs for people who are already facing insurance settlement shortfalls in a place that has historically been a haven for seniors on limited budgets.
The town “needs people...people need homes...not anywhere near doable for elderly retirees,” one resident commented on a live video of council members discussing potential code changes in June. “This WAS a retirement community!!”
With these financial pressures in mind, the council decided against some ordinances. For example, one measure would have required manufactured homes to have sprinklers and permanent foundations, which are less combustible but more pricey.
“If money wasn’t an issue, we would be passing more of these codes,” said Councilwoman Melissa Schuster.
It’s a balance Santa Rosa also had to strike in the year after the 2017 Tubbs fire, which destroyed more than 5,000 homes. Santa Rosa declined to strengthen building codes, in hopes of making it easier for residents to rebuild.
Paradise is trying to do the same by streamlining its permitting process. It will soon open its so-called Building Resiliency Center, a one-stop shop for housing resources. So far, 303 building permits have been issued.
Victoria and Travis Sinclaire were the first to rebuild in Paradise. The couple moved from Sacramento to Butte County in 2002 when their daughter, Emily, was a baby. They wanted to raise her in a calm and beautiful place, and they found that in this wooded hamlet in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
Even though they adored Paradise, they weren’t sure they would come back after the fire. “I was resentful toward the property because I felt betrayed by it,” Victoria Sinclaire said over a meal of steak and asparagus one recent Monday. Because of PG&E blackouts, the family hadn’t had power for days, so they ate by lantern light. “I felt like I could never trust my town again.”
Then the Sinclaires went to the annual tree-lighting ceremony in town just before Christmas. To their surprise, hundreds of people showed up. They bumped into friends and co-workers and watched kids skate around the ice rink. They felt at peace for the first time in weeks. They could see that Paradise was still here, even though it looked a lot different, and even though many of its people were traumatized by what had happened. They wanted to be a part of its comeback.
The Sinclaires began the rebuilding process in earnest. Plans for their three-bedroom house were modest, but they made sure to add features that would make the space more enjoyable, like walk-in closets, a dishwasher and a kitchen island. They knew they had to build to wildland-urban interface standards, so their wood-frame home has sprinklers, double-pane windows and fire-resistant siding.
When asked whether they considered going beyond those requirements, Victoria Sinclaire explained that she thinks about the safety of her family constantly. After what she experienced, escaping by the skin of her teeth through a tunnel of flames, it would be hard not to. “I’m sleeping with a fire extinguisher next to my bed,” she said.
But the Sinclaires had already paid several thousands of dollars out of pocket because of an insurance shortfall. Meeting the standards felt like all they could afford.
That’s not to say that they didn’t rebuild with fire risk in mind. A wooden fence and deck contributed to the Sinclaires’ last home burning down, so they chose to not rebuild their deck. But a wooden fence is attached to their new home. They had it installed quickly so their dogs, who had been cooped up in an apartment in Chico for months, could run around in the yard. They didn’t ask the contractor what material was being used.
It was an oversight, Victoria Sinclaire said, one they’ll probably correct if the council passes the five-foot firebreak code.
Steve Culleton, a former mayor and councilman who is almost done rebuilding his home, said he hasn’t quite warmed to the firebreak idea.
“Don’t get me wrong — I’m all for public safety,” Culleton told a reporter as he painted the white trim around a door frame. “I’m just not for government being involved in what I do with my land. I’m gonna make my home my home. I’m not worried about a bunch of geraniums under my front window.”
Clearing a path
Though town officials are planning with an eye toward long-term recovery, they are in many ways still in survival mode.
Now that the rubble has been cleared, they must remove half a million dead and dying trees that pose an immediate fire risk. Many of those are on private property, and each costs about $1,000 to cut down.
Paradise is applying for more than $300 million in funding through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, which could abate the expense of the tree project by 75%. The FEMA grants would also be used to design and roll out a new early warning system — a version of which failed during the Camp fire — and to create a program that would help residents harden their homes against fire.
The money would also be spent on hire building inspectors, who are needed to enforce the defensible space code. Right now the town has a single full-time employee doing this work.
One of the more daunting tasks the town faces is making its system of streets — half of which are private roads that dead-end haphazardly — more evacuation-friendly. During the Camp fire, many motorists were trapped on these dead ends as traffic on connecting streets backed up.
The town is identifying which of these roads might be connected to improve circulation, said Susan Hartman, the community development director for Paradise.
Ideally, the town would buy the private land needed to link some of those streets. But that would have to happen soon, while Paradise is mostly empty; it’s possible that residents will rebuild on some of the property before the town has the money to purchase it, Hartman said.
“It’s a race to find those properties, figure out what funding’s available and get it secured,” she said.
Before that project can be tackled, officials said, they need to fix roads and culverts that were damaged in the fire and subsequent cleanup. And the town, which relies on 11,000 individual septic tanks, has named building a central sewer system as a top priority.
Pam Gray, 57, grew up in Paradise, and she recalls residents paving some of those private roads. “I remember when Will himself built Wills Drive,” Gray said from behind her desk at Rose Chapel Mortuary, a business her family has owned since the 1950s. “Back then,” before the town was incorporated into Butte County in 1979, “you could do anything you wanted with your property.”
Gray said she is somewhat worried that the town won’t be able to connect some of the more dangerous roads. Some of these people have been on their properties for four or five generations, she said. It’s hard for her to imagine those families wanting to give that up. But it remains to be seen who will come back.
Broshears, the former fire chief, has long advocated for better road connectivity. The town developed a plan to improve the street system 20 years ago, he noted, but it went nowhere. “People in Paradise love their long, dead-end roads,” he said, “until there’s a fire.”
“If there’s ever a window of opportunity to get this done, it’s now,” he went on. “There’s more funding on the table than there ever will be again.”
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