As Paradise rebuilds, a divide over safety a year after deadly Camp Fire
As many residents pledge to "rebuild the ridge,” one wildfire mitigation expert fears the town is setting itself up for another disaster
By Don Thompson
PARADISE, Calif. — There was "no way in hell" Victoria Sinclaire was rebuilding in Paradise.
She'd thought she was going to die during the six hours it took her to escape the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history.
Sinclaire and tens of thousands of others in nearby communities fled the wind-whipped inferno that killed 85 people and incinerated roughly 19,000 homes, businesses and other buildings on Nov. 8, 2018.
Despite her vow to stay away, Sinclaire's family was one of the first to rebuild, braving the enduring threat of wildfires, and now, repeated power outages as the nation's largest utility tries to prevent its equipment from sparking blazes on windy days like it did in Paradise a year ago.
Weeks after the wildfire, Sinclaire had an epiphany. She returned to the ruins of her home and felt more at peace than any time since the fleeing the flames, even as she stood in the ashes of her living room.
"I want people to see that Paradise is a place to return home to," Sinclaire said. "The scars run deep here, but so do the roots that help it grow."
"Rebuilding the Ridge" is a rallying cry on signs around town, evoking the beauty and peril of rebuilding on a wind-swept jut of land poking out of the Sierra Nevada and begging the question: Will the resurgent community be safer this time?
Sinclaire's home is one of just nine that have been rebuilt, but the town is on track to issue 500 building permits by year's end.
About 3,000 people have returned, but the town is now largely populated with travel trailers. They're parked on lots scraped clean of more than 3.66 million tons of charred and toxic ruins, the equivalent of four Golden Gate bridges or twice the tonnage that was removed from the World Trade Center site.
"When you drive around, you don't see all the carcasses anymore of the houses and the cars," town councilman Michael Zuccolillo said. "You'd hear hammers and chain saws and nail guns."
Wildfire mitigation consultant Zeke Lunder fears Paradise is setting itself up for another disaster.
"As we saw in the Camp Fire, the town's really well set up to kill people with wildfire," said Lunder, who lives in nearby Chico.
The five routes out of town quickly became gridlocked with traffic, abandoned vehicles and downed power poles during the blaze. Half the town's roads are privately owned, many of them narrow, dead-end tracks leading through small, densely forested lots.
To make the town safe, officials would have to start fresh with a new grid of interconnected streets and alleys, spend millions a year to keep brush and trees in check, and force homeowners to keep their properties clear, Lunder said.
"We're not going to keep fires from burning through Paradise, so whatever they build up there should be something that can survive a wildfire," Lunder said. "But just building a bunch of wooden houses out in the brush, we already saw what happened."
Paradise officials have taken steps to make the town more fire resistant as it rebuilds but stopped short of the stringent restrictions adopted by several fire-prone Southern California communities. They adopted only seven of 15 proposed fire safety standards.
Council members rejected a plan to ban combustible materials within 5 feet (1.5 meters) of homes until it would allow plants. Policing people's plants, Zuccolillo said, would "kind of go against the fabric of our town. ... We don't want big government telling us what to do."
Improving evacuation routes and emergency warnings are still under consideration, while city leaders last month required people to remove hazardous trees that could fall into a public right of way.
California's growing homelessness crisis is one reason there is little talk of prohibiting construction in high-risk areas like Paradise. Rural areas are generally much more affordable than cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, which face their own dangers from earthquakes, fires and rising oceans.
More than 2.7 million Californians live in areas at very high risk for wildfires, according to an Associated Press analysis of census data and state fire maps. Nearly 180 cities and towns are in the very high hazard areas.
That's one reason Gov. Gavin Newsom touted growing efforts to clear swaths of brush and trees from around communities to slow advancing flames. President Donald Trump has accused California's Democratic leaders of not doing enough to manage overgrown forests.
Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology, said clearing trees is usually counterproductive because the weeds and brush that grow back in open areas are more flammable than the mature trees they replace.
"We have the technology and the know-how to build homes that are less flammable. We have no ability to do that to the forests," he said.