Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on January 2, 2019.

Old & In Harm's Way

How demographics and topography collided to make the Camp Fire California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire ever


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Ernest Foss was one of many retirees who called Paradise, California, home. After growing up in San Francisco, where he later raised three children and worked as a studio musician, Foss, who went by Ernie, moved to the picturesque town, nestled about 50 miles north of Sacramento in the Sierra Nevada foothills, to live out his golden years.

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When the fast-moving Camp Fire tore through Paradise on November 8, essentially razing the entire community, Foss, a 63-year-old bedridden with a chronic illness, couldn’t get out, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. He and his stepson, Andrew Burt, died as Burt tried to get Foss into a wheelchair and evacuate the area.

The situation faced by Foss and Burt illustrates in part why the Camp Fire became the deadliest wildfire in California history, killing at least 86 people. The demographics of Paradise skewed older, with a significant portion of the population 65 or above. The town also had a significantly higher proportion of disabled residents. When those vulnerable populations came face to face with the topography and fire history of Paradise—most of the town exists in the wildland/urban interface—it was a meeting primed to end in disaster.


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Experts hope that a better understanding of the factors that contributed to the severity of the Camp Fire will help prevent future tragedies from unfolding. “Maybe after the Camp Fire we can finally call it a lesson learned and act upon it,” said Michele Steinberg, director of NFPA’s Wildfire Division.


Aside from being the deadliest, the Camp Fire was also the most destructive wildfire to ever burn in California. It burned more than 153,000 acres, or 240 square miles, destroyed some 19,000 structures, including about 14,000 homes, and caused an estimated $11–13 billion in residential and commercial losses. The blaze capped a ferocious wildfire season in the Golden State, which saw more than 1.8 million acres of land burn—over 550,000 more than the number of acres that burned in 2017, and only about 200,000 shy of the number of acres that burned in the three years before that combined.

The Camp Fire was big, but not abnormally so. Another 2018 California wildfire, the Mendocino Complex Fire, burned nearly 460,000 acres, making it the largest in California history. The Camp Fire’s size doesn’t even place it in the top 15 largest wildfires to ever burn in the state.

And while by all accounts the Camp Fire moved at an astonishing pace—at its peak, swallowing terrain at the rate of 80 football fields per minute, according to published reports—many other California wildfires, like the deadly Tubbs Fire that ravaged Sonoma and Santa Rosa in 2017, moved quickly, too.

What set the Camp Fire apart was the town of Paradise, the largest community in its path. Founded in the late 1800s as a mining community, the town was marketed in the 1970s as a destination for seniors. The campaign worked, and its population more than doubled in the years that followed, as retirees fled cities like San Francisco and Sacramento to “live out their later years in peace,” the Chronicle reported. “There is a disproportionately larger senior, fixed-income, and disabled population. That [describes] a lot of members of our community,” Paradise Town Councilman Scott Lotter told the newspaper.

According to data from the United States Census Bureau, about 25 percent of residents in Paradise are 65 years old or over. For comparison, 12.4 percent of residents in the nearby city of Chico are 65 or over; in California as a whole, it’s about 14 percent, and nationally, it’s 15.6 percent. Furthermore, 18.4 percent of residents in Paradise are under 65 but disabled, versus about 7 percent of the state’s population and 8.7 percent of the country’s population.

Statistic on the aged and disabled population of Paradise, California

The Camp Fire took almost everyone by surprise. It began as a brush fire on the edge of town, and within minutes had developed into a significant wind-driven wildfire, then an urban conflagration. As fire roared through Paradise, trapping people in their homes and cutting off escape routes for residents in vehicles, the town’s demographic characteristics became a problem. “Many of the at least 85 people who perished … were elderly, infirm, or disabled,” the Sacramento Bee reported on December 4. “They may not have had the physical strength, presence of mind, or perhaps the desire to save themselves.”

As of mid-December, the Butte County Sheriff’s Office had released the names and ages of 53 people who died in the Camp Fire, many of them Paradise residents. The average age of victims was 72.7; the oldest was 99. While it’s harder to determine how many victims were disabled, anecdotal evidence suggests this was also an important factor among Camp Fire fatalities. “Over and over again, it is mostly people with disabilities and the aged, they are the ones being left behind,” Christina Mills, executive director of the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers, told the Bee.

It’s not uncommon for this to be the case during wildfires and other natural disasters, yet experts say too few communities have planned comprehensively for evacuating vulnerable populations.

“Evacuations are absolutely fraught with challenges,” Steinberg said, starting with the assumption that everyone will receive emergency notifications, understand them, and have the time, ability, resources, and situational awareness to be able to respond appropriately. With steep, narrow, winding roads and little signage, it takes “heroic” efforts even for able-bodied people to escape wildfires in rural communities like Paradise, Steinberg said. “What happens to the house-bound, those without vehicles, those who can’t drive? Very few places have had those hard discussions between residents and emergency managers and fire and law enforcement officials about what that ‘bad day’ is really going to look like and what they’ll really have to do when it arrives.”

In a survey of almost 400 local health departments in the U.S., conducted in 2017 by the National Association of County & City Health Officials (NACCHO), 93 percent reported having an emergency plan that includes elderly populations, and 92 percent reported having an emergency plan that includes disabled populations.

The problem, said Nick Boukas, director of public health preparedness for NACCHO, is that these plans aren’t always crafted with input from public safety agencies or the community as a whole, and training doesn’t always take place. Likewise, other departments and agencies may make their own plans without input from health departments, local health care providers, or the community. “The majority of health departments might take into account factors like whether disabled populations are on durable medical equipment like oxygen tanks, but do fire and EMS agencies take that into account and know what they need to rescue or evacuate these people?” Boukas said. “Most of the time it’s a matter of finding funding to bring everyone to the table to plan and to train together.”

As wildfires become more prevalent, especially when they affect urban areas, responders and emergency planners need to be more aware of community demographics and what stakeholders bring to the table in terms of preparedness and response, Boukas said. “This needs to be a whole-community approach,” he added. “You never want to make a friend at the scene of the emergency—you want to know them in advance and understand what they can provide.”

Maps from the SILVIS Lab at the University of Wisconsin’s Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology show wildland/urban interface (WUI) growth in orange and yellow in and around Paradise, California, from 1990 to 2010.

Maps from the SILVIS Lab at the University of Wisconsin’s Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology show wildland/urban interface (WUI) growth in orange and yellow in and around Paradise, California, from 1990 to 2010.

Although it’s not wildfire-specific, NFPA’s Public Education Division does offer an emergency evacuation planning guide for people with disabilities. The document stresses, for instance, that those who need assistance evacuating shouldn’t have to wait for first responders to get them; a plan that tasks other officials or members of the community with assisting them earlier should be in place.

In news reports on the Camp Fire, some residents claimed notifications came too late or not at all. In an interview with the Denver Post in November, Paradise Ridge Fire Safe Council Chairman Phil John defended the town’s plan, which he helped develop. At the same, though, he added, “No one could plan for a fire like that.”


The challenges of protecting vulnerable populations from wildfire play out against a backdrop of a changing climate and an expanding built environment, factors that are making wildfires more dangerous. And Paradise was a prime example of how a community’s natural and manmade features can influence the severity of a wildfire.

The conditions that constitute the wildland/urban interface, or WUI, include clusters of the built environment that abut or exist in fire-prone areas, creating neighborhoods squarely in harm’s way. According to the SILVIS Lab at the University of Wisconsin’s Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, the WUI has been growing for the past few decades throughout the country. The lab’s data shows that, from 1990 to 2010, California’s WUI has grown by 1.1 million acres, the number of houses in the WUI has grown by 1.1 million, and the number of people living in the WUI has grown by 2.9 million. New data will become available after the 2020 Census.

An aerial view of a neighborhood destroyed by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California.

Paradise Lost An aerial view of a neighborhood destroyed by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California. In November, the fast-moving fire ripped through Paradise and surrounding communities, charring over 150,000 acres, killing at least 86 people, and destroying over 15,000 homes and businesses. Photograph: Getty Images

On the lab’s website,, an interactive map shows WUI prevalence at the municipality level. Zero in on Paradise, and the map is covered in red and yellow dots representing the areas where structures abut or intermix with forest. It paints an ominous picture of how many people and structures were in harm’s way as the Camp Fire churned through town.

To understand how the result of the fire may have been different had it burned outside of a WUI area, consider the Mendocino Complex Fire, which burned roughly 75 miles southwest of Paradise in late summer. The area where that fire burned has far fewer red and yellow dots on the SILVIS Lab’s map. While the Mendocino Complex Fire burned almost four times as many acres as the Camp Fire, it killed one person and destroyed fewer than 300 structures.

The vast majority of WUI growth—97 percent, according to the SILVIS Lab—has occurred as a result of new construction encroaching on fire-prone lands, and that trend isn’t expected to change. People will continue moving to these areas to live closer to nature, avoid government regulations, or cut living costs, the New York Times reported in November.

What can change, however, is how people build and maintain their homes in the WUI.

Wind-blown embers drive destruction during wildfires—it’s the same way the infamous urban conflagrations spread in centuries past. So building homes and other structures with more fire-resistant materials like metal versus wood, a practice known as home hardening, and creating defensible space by keeping properties clear of dry brush and other combustibles can dramatically reduce the likelihood of a structure or property igniting when an ember lands.

In California, guidelines for implementing such practices exist and can be adopted and amended by local jurisdictions. “The information is out there,” said Scott McClain, public information officer for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “It consists of home hardening and defensible space guidelines … information on the best roofing type, siding type, fence type, how you should build a deck.” (Read more about the efforts to protect homes from wildfire ignition—and why those efforts aren’t universally embraced—in the January/February 2018 NFPA Journal cover story “Build. Burn. Repeat?”)

In Paradise, more hardened homes and defensible space would have likely yielded less destruction, but it’s hard to say exactly how much of an impact those measures would have had. Embers from the fire blew astonishingly quickly through the tiny town of Concow and then Paradise, sparking a new fire “every time one landed” on the bone-dry landscape or a home, many of which were old and constructed of wood, McClain said.

He likened the fire to the so-called “Perfect Storm” of 1991, a convergence of storms in the North Atlantic that created a massive and destructive mega-storm. “Well, this blew that out of the water, so to speak,” McClain said. “In a normal fire, it’s going to hit one area and progress from there, and you can evacuate zone by zone. But in this case, the embers enveloped multiple parts of the town in fire at a time. It just overtook everything and everybody at once.”

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Getty Images