Author(s): Michele Steinberg. Published on May 1, 2019.

Letter from Paradise

A trip to the communities devastated by last fall’s Camp Fire offers a reminder of nature’s potentially lethal bite—and why we need to protect ourselves

An often-photographed sign in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park reads “Mountains Don’t Care.” It warns hikers of “precipitous cliffs, glaciers, and steep snow chutes” and describes how weather conditions can quickly deteriorate. No matter how much hikers may love nature, the sign is a reminder that nature doesn’t love them back.

The same can be said of wildfire.

I thought of this recently as I traveled to Butte County, California, at the invitation of the Western Fire Chiefs Association to witness the aftermath of last fall’s Camp Fire, the most destructive wildfire in US history. I was part of a group of fire professionals that visited the towns of Paradise and Magalia, once-idyllic communities that had been reduced to twisted piles of metal, rubble, and ash.

Our guide was David Hawks, Butte County’s fire chief and a CAL FIRE unit chief. Hawks’ tour included a high ridge where expensive, beautiful houses once stood, commanding stunning views. Now only the chimneys remained, along with decorative concrete benches and birdbaths in the scorched back yards. In a more modest subdivision, burned-out cars dotted the landscape; even months after the fire, the stench of melted metal and plastics made my throat sore. The destruction went on for miles.

Hawks, who grew up in Paradise and still lives there near his parents, described a chaotic and terrifying early morning mass evacuation when the fire hit. His parents, who both survived unharmed, fled in separate vehicles; his mother’s journey to escape took more than three hours on the clogged roads. Like many others, they returned later to find their family home destroyed. Many fared worse. In all, 85 people died in the fire, most inside or immediately outside their homes, or in vehicles that never made it to the main road out of town.

What we witnessed and heard was heartbreaking, but not unfamiliar. Paradise and Magalia are among hundreds of communities across the country that have been traumatized by wildfire in recent years. What many of these places have in common is a legacy of homes and infrastructure developed and built without taking wildfire hazards into account, despite the inherent danger.

During the Camp Fire, high winds sent blizzards of embers miles ahead into towns and subdivisions, where homes and businesses provided ample fuel for the fire. But not everything was equally vulnerable. In Magalia, tall pine trees, barely scorched by the fire, stood directly beside rows of incinerated homes, many of which had been dusted with combustible dry pine needles. The houses were easier targets for the embers than the trees; once ignited, fire spread horizontally from one structure to the next. Nearly 19,000 structures were destroyed.

Wildfire experts know that it is possible right now to build and prepare homes in a way that makes them nearly ignition-resistant. As I looked at the destruction before me, I wondered what would have remained if those steps had been taken.

Our desire to live in or near nature is understandable, and as we continue to develop the wildland, these strategies will only gain importance. But as environmental historian William Cronon once wrote, “The unexpected consequences of living next door to a nature that is far less under control than it appears prove to be myriad.” For Paradise, Magalia, and many other towns, the harsh reality of fire in nature is now obvious. It’s up to our society to care enough about balancing that love of nature with the safety and security of our fellow humans in our decision making when lives and futures are at stake. Nature doesn’t love us. It’s up to us to protect ourselves.

MICHELE STEINBERG is director of the wildfire division at NFPA. Top Illustration: Michael Hoeweler