Issue of the Week: Environment
Fire in Paradise, Frontline, PBS, October 29, 2019
Tonight, our favorite acclaimed decades-running documentary journalism series, Frontline, on PBS, aired Fire in Paradise, a unique up-close and personal look at what to date a year ago was the largest fire in California history.
And as it aired–and as we write–it’s happening again.
And then some.
California is burning from the Oregon border to nearly the Mexican border.
Today’s front page of The New York Times is dominated by a picture of the fire being battled in northern California, with the caption, An End To End Menace In California.
The underlying menace of climate change is clear, and made clear in tonight’s Frontline airing.
But as we’ve pointed out often, no matter how serious the threat or how much it has been focused on, most people don’t make it a priority.
Because their first priority is eating (and housing, and health care–all the basic needs)–and climate change isn’t in their face (pun intended) in the same way.
Until it is.
Fire in Paradise brings it home for everyone. You experience the hell–literally–wrought by climate change. You are in the middle of it, physically and emotionally.
And now you know what’s coming for us, all of us, at any time. You know. Now it’s in your face. That’s how good this documentary is.
We wrote extensively about this in The End Of Civilization As Knew It, Part Four, over a year ago.
Here’s an opening excerpt:
In the US today, one of the many forest fires in California reached the point of being the largest fire on record in California history.
California is the world’s fifth largest economy, passing the UK two months ago.
The decision some time ago by the US under the new Trump Administration to not abide by the Paris Climate Agreement was another marker of the end of civilization as we knew it.
In reality, the agreement was toothless and the exclamation point on failures to reach an actual treaty on the issue going back decades. But it was also the only thin possibility left to build on internationally, to take far more radical action needed—not to avoid horrible suffering, too late for that—but hopefully to avoid complete catastrophe. The entire direction on environmental issues by the US now, domestically and globally, is terrifying.
The US, and the world, are going through another summer of record-breaking environmental disasters.
And the frightening scientific reports continue, a number recently, including today. We leave the researching of the above to the readers.
On these issues, China, a capitalist state dictatorship, now the world’s largest nation by population, and India, the largest democracy on earth, challenged by nationalism, and soon to be the largest nation by population as well, have equal significance to the US. More in environmental impact in many ways now.
But China and India are also more pushed internally to act because of greater clear and present intolerable environmental damage, conflicting, as everywhere, with international reliance on the old model of growth created largely by the US and EU nations.
The EU (with others) is barely holding the Paris Agreement together, while it has been challenged more than ever to hold itself together.
In the end, the US must lead. Thus, at the moment, we stare more deeply into the abyss.
All the great issues facing humanity and life on earth are interrelated. Our mantra. The driver of clmate change has been the same thing that keeps it from being faced. An outmoded, unregulated, unsustainable growth model fueling and fueled by unimaginable inequality.
And this inequality is unmasked once again in the current crisis of California burning.
The front page of The New York Times tomorrow, posted tonight, has the headline, California Burns, and Rebuilding Exposes the Vast Wealth Gap.
The article follows, after a Frontline article, Camp Fire: By the Numbers related to tonight’s Frontline program, Fire in Paradise, and then the transcript for the program.
We have suggested the following rarely, but have before. In this case we may be suggesting it more emphatically than ever.
Watch the documentary, streamed from the link, before reading the transcript. You will know climate chmage for the first time, unless you are one of those unfortunate millions who have already known it first hand, experienced in an undisguisable manner that demands all your attention.
Let’s be clear about something.
The term climate change is more scientifically accurate than the term it largely replaced in the environmental movement–global warming. And it makes sense, because among other things, it is causing the rise of oceans so that as reported today, 150 million people will be underwater where they now live by mid-century–a blink away. But the replacement of global warming with climate change was in part out of what was perceived as strategic necessity to gain broader public understanding and support on a polarizing issue with vast forces of money and power arrayed against activists.
It worked, at least for a while. Public opinion and policy seemed to become more galvanized–to a point.
And it was necessary, for all the above reasons.
But it also doesn’t connote anything beyond neutral in the impact of the words by themselves.
And even the term global warming was, itself, in a branding sense, what it sounds like–lukewarm.
It’s not like the word starvation.
But in fact, we are in a global climate crisis.
The world is on fire.
And when you’re burning, or at risk of it as a clear and present danger, suddenly nothing else matters.
Just like nothing else matters than food and other basics.
It all goes together.
. . .
It has been 355 days since the deadliest wildfire in California’s history began.
It ignited in the early morning hours of Nov. 8, 2018 and would rage for more than two weeks, devastating the town of Paradise before it was extinguished. FRONTLINE’s new documentary Fire in Paradise examines who’s to blame, and what made the fire so catastrophic.
Here, we look at some of the numbers that defined the Camp Fire.
A nearly 100-year-old electrical transmission line owned and operated by Pacific Gas and Electric was identified as the cause of the Camp Fire after an investigation by California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire. Internal documents obtained by The Wall Street Journal this year found that in 2017, the utility estimated the average age of its transmission towers was 68 years old. Some were 108 years old. The mean life expectancy of the towers was 65 years. PG&E declined to be interviewed for the documentary, but sent a statement and written responsesto questions. It said, “PG&E disagrees with any suggestion that it knew of any specific maintenance conditions that caused the Camp Fire and nonetheless deferred work that would have addressed those conditions.”
132 calls to 911 were answered by Paradise’s dispatch center between 6:30 a.m., around the time the fire was first reported, and when the calls were rerouted at 8:20 a.m., according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Carol Ladrini was one of the dispatchers working the phones. Her training would prompt her to ask, “Do you see ashes? Do you see flames? How close is it?”
80 football fields a minute was the rate at which the fire spread at its peak.
67 patients admitted at Feather River Hospital were evacuated as the flames approached. Patients, some carrying their IV bags, were loaded up into the vehicles of doctors, nurses and other hospital staff. “It wasn’t a normal evacuation that we’ve been planning and rehearsing,” Nichole Jolly, a nurse at the hospital, told FRONTLINE. “It was so fast.”
4 hours was all it took for the fire to rip through Paradise. “Our Air Tac officer gave a report — where the fire was and how much was being impacted. He basically said, ‘The fire’s progressed all the way through town,’” Cal Fire Division Chief John Messina told FRONTLINE. “By noon, we had conceded that the town had basically burned down.”
85 people lost their lives in the fire. Some died in their cars as they were trying to escape. The vast majority of people who died were 60 years or older. In August, the Butte County Sheriff’s Department said one more person who suffered serious injuries in the fire had passed away, bringing the official toll to 86.
18,800 structures were destroyed, the vast majority of them — almost 14,000 — were residences. Around 30,000 people lost their homes.
More than 5,000 firefighters were dispatched to tackle the blaze at one point, a week after it had begun. Responders from across California and other U.S. states helped contain the fire.
$8.4 billion in insured losses were reported to the California Department of Insurance as of January. Losses in the Camp Fire made up a major chunk of the $12.4 billion in damage claims from California wildfires in 2018.
10 of the 20 most destructive fires in California, in terms of structures destroyed, happened in the last four years, according to Cal Fire. Eight of them happened within the last two years. In its strategic plan for 2018 (released before the Camp Fire), Cal Fire noted, “Climate change has rendered the term ‘fire season’ obsolete, as wildfires now burn on a year-round basis across [California].”
. . .
California Burns, and Rebuilding Exposes the Vast Wealth Gap.
By Thomas Fuller, Julie Turkewitz and
Natural disasters are another prism through which California’s vast income inequalities can be viewed.
SANTA ROSA, Calif. — After a wildfire razed his spacious suburban home in the Sonoma hills two years ago, Pete Parkinson set out to rebuild. This time it would be an even better one. He reoriented the house toward vistas of a nearby mountain and designed a large kitchen with hickory floors and 16-foot windows under vaulted ceilings.
“We are now living the silver lining,” said Mr. Parkinson, a retired civil servant who moved into his new home 10 days ago. “It is a beautiful, brand-new home.”
California’s catastrophic wildfires have not discriminated between rich and poor. In recent years tens of thousands of people lost their homes, from trailer parks to mansions. But the aftermath of the fires has produced a spectrum of misery and recovery, ranging from the wealthy, who with insurance money rebuilt houses sometimes worth more than the ones that burned, to those who lost everything and years later still have nothing.
. . .
Fire in Paradise, Frontline, PBS, October 20, 2019
NICHOLE JOLLY, R.N., Feather River Hospital:
Paradise is—there’s something about it; there’s something with the country that’s—the trees are beautiful.
Just living in the mountains and—it’s healing to be here.
You saw hummingbirds and butterflies. We’d sleep outside under the stars.
It’s a tight-knit community. Everyone is super-strong and resilient up here. You never felt more safe than out there in the mountains.
November 8, 2018
MALE WEATHER REPORTER:
Good morning, and it’s—a red flag fire danger warning is in effect. Up to 45 mph gusts out of the north today. Right now, it’s 57 degrees. Humidity down to 19% already—
CAPT. MATT McKENZIE, Cal Fire Station 36:
I woke up early the morning of the 8th. The wind was very strong; pine needles were hitting the roof—it’s a metal roof—and in my half-asleep state I thought, Is it raining?
Anytime you have the winds coming with no rain, it’s very nerve-wracking. And we were getting so late in the season, we were just critically dry; it was just like, please, blow in a storm.
You know, every now and then I like to wake up early and make the guys breakfast. So when the wind woke me up, I said, “Well, this is a perfect time to get a jump on it.”
My phone was laying on the countertop next to where I was cutting up potatoes, and it illuminated; said there was a vegetation fire in the canyon.
Seven-and-a-half miles from the town of Paradise, a fire had started beneath a high-voltage electricity tower. The line was almost 100 years old and was owned by PG&E, America’s largest electricity company.
MIKE RAMSEY, District attorney, Butte County:
The fire started, as PG&E has admitted, from a piece of equipment that failed, bringing a power line in contact with the steel tower, so you had shards of molten metal that got thrown down into the brush.
In high winds, companies like PG&E can turn off the electricity in power lines to reduce wildfire risk.
We had heard that PG&E was thinking about turning off power in several different areas that were in danger of high winds and possibly something happening with power lines.
But that morning, PG&E had decided not to turn off the power. It would later say this was because the winds were decreasing.
I made one corner around Highway 70 to where you can actually see the Pulga Bridge. And so I took my eyes off the road for 2 seconds, looked up, saw it and made my report.
19 minutes since ignition
MALE RADIO VOICE:
—two responding, copy, possible power line down. Eyes on the vegetation fire, it’s, uh, underneath the transmission lines. It’s got about a 35-mile-an-hour sustained wind on it.
The fire was by a narrow dirt track, called Camp Creek Road. Capt. McKenzie decided it was too dangerous to drive a fire truck down it.
MALE RADIO VOICE:
It’s going to be very difficult to access; Camp Creek Road is nearly inaccessible.
He requested air support to put out the fire, but it was too windy to fly.
MALE RADIO VOICE:
This has got potential for a major incident.
It was a very sinking, very uncomfortable feeling seeing where it was at and seeing how small it actually was relative to where it was at.
It was a manageable-looking fire if I could get to it. So—
But you couldn’t get to it.
Couldn’t get to it.
45 minutes since ignition
MALE RADIO VOICE:
—came out of the community of Pulga to get a better look at it. My guess—best guess would be 300 acres. It’s heading in the direction towards Concow Lake.
I copy. You’re just above Pulga, heading towards Concow Lake with a rapid rate of spread. Can you repeat the acreage?
MALE RADIO VOICE:
Estimate 200 to 300.
The fire was spreading towards Concow, a remote settlement of around 700 people, about halfway between where the fire ignited and Paradise.
CHIEF JOHN MESSINA, Incident commander, Cal Fire:
I got a couple phone calls from other chief officers asking if I was paying attention to the radio. You know, I think, like a lot of people, didn’t really take it too serious; we get a lot of fires up there.
You know, I told them, “You know, it’s cold; you know, it’s in the 40s; it’s November; it’s a nuisance fire.”
The incident command post was set up at the hardware store at Yankee Hill. And so we were preparing to defend Concow and contain that fire.
52 minutes since ignition
MALE RADIO VOICE 1:
MALE RADIO VOICE 2:
—2107. Going in to check out Concow. I’ll reassess, and in about 10 minutes, I’ll get back to you.
Cal Fire, the state fire service, began sending firefighters to tackle the blaze in Concow.
CAPT. JEFF EDSON, Training and Safety Bureau, Cal Fire:
I drove up Highway 70, and the wind was basically blowing all the smoke right over the top of us.
The blaze was soon dubbed “the Camp Fire,” after the road where it started.
We were stopping down Concow, helped out a few residents; tried to put some of the spot fires out around their house. They were relatively small; they were 10 to 15, maybe 20 feet.
And then there was a point in there where the wind just kind of started picking up, and the spot fires that were not a big deal at the time started engulfing both sides of the road.
My pops had been in Concow ever since I can remember—before I was born. It’s always felt so special; it’s at the end of Concow Road and at the top. We always felt like nothing could hurt us there. It was home sweet home.
Twenty-one-year-old Jordan Huff often visited her granddad, who lived on his own on a small farm.
He’d grow pumpkins for the grandkids. So in October, when they were ready to harvest, we’d have jack-o’-lanterns to carve; and they were Poppa’s pumpkins, and they were bigger than anyone’s you’d seen.
My pops lost his leg in a farming incident, but they’re stubborn mountain folk.
He was always outside working when we showed up, out in his wheelchair, working away.
MALE RADIO VOICE:
We have multiple structures already burning down here.
By 7:30, the fire had picked up. The wind was spraying burning embers in every direction; a column of smoke was now visible for miles.
My dad had called my pops. He was out there in his wheelchair with a hose, putting out the fires that were breaking out into his yard.
And my dad was like, you know, “Don’t worry about it. You need to go. You need to get out of here and leave.” And he said, “OK, I will. I’ll grab the dogs and I’ll go.”
Firefighter Jeff Edson and a colleague were now trapped down by Concow Lake.
We came across four individuals that were running, and they were waving their hands at me, and you could tell they had ember burns and stuff on their skin and their hair.
Three of them ran and just jumped straight into the water ‘cause they were taking so much heat.
MALE RADIO VOICE:
We need to shut down Highway 70 and then stand by for additional resource order.
At the incident command post, Chief Messina was aware this was becoming a major fire.
MALE RADIO VOICE:
Just be ready to call in personnel that are off-duty right now.
But with firefighters in Concow trapped, and aircraft unable to fly because of the wind, he didn’t know how fast it was moving.
We typically get our fire intelligence—what the fire’s doing, how fast it’s spreading— from our own line personnel; firefighters.
What was different about this day was the fact that as soon as our firefighters engaged, they went right into rescue mode. And they were no longer able, nor did they really care, where the fire was spreading. They were too busy on rescuing civilians and, you know, ensuring that―of their own safety. So we didn’t get a lot of intelligence on how fast the fire was spreading.
The fire was moving towards the town of Paradise, 4 miles away on the other side of a steep canyon. In the past, fires have rarely crossed the canyon, but the Camp Fire was now spreading at a rate of 80 football fields a minute.
911, what is your emergency?
I see a fire across the Feather River Canyon.
CAROL LADRINI, Paradise Police 911 Dispatch:
The calls started coming in slowly as people were waking up in the morning, having their coffee, looking out the window and seeing what I couldn’t see.
Dispatcher Carol Ladrini had been trained to handle calls reporting fires.
“Do you see ashes? Do you see flames? How close is it?” Because “kind of far off” could be across the street, or two canyons away.
911, what is your emergency?
Cal Fire normally notifies Paradise Police if a fire is threatening the town, but they hadn’t done so.
I want to report a fire, unless somebody else already reported it.
OK, is it in the Concow area, and up north that way?
Yep, that’s it.
Yeah, we’re getting lots of calls. Thank you.
As more calls came in, Ladrini says she contacted Cal Fire, and they told her the fire was north of Concow, miles from Paradise.
Did they say anything about the size or the intensity of the fire?
No. At that point they didn’t, and I didn’t ask. Generally a fire that far away would never even get close to Paradise.
Hello, can you tell me if there’s a fire in the canyon?
There’s a fire that’s north of Concow, up off of Highway 70. It’s just creating a lot of smoke right now.
“Why are so many people calling about this smoke? What—what’s going on?” Still, at that point I didn’t know what they were seeing. So all I could do is call Cal Fire back.
What I said was, “Can you confirm with me that this is north of Concow, that this is not in Paradise? People say there’s ashes falling.”
“Yes, it’s north of Concow”; that’s the words that I got. OK. So I continued to tell the people that were calling that we were not under threat.
- Are you calling about the smoke?
Yes, I am.
How come we’re not seeing it on news, or sirens, or something?
It’s because it’s still new. It’s north of Highway 70.
Um, are we supposed to be evacuated, or what?
No, you’ll be notified. There’s a fire north of Concow. No danger to Paradise, OK?
By 7:45, the fire had crossed the canyon and was threatening Paradise and the surrounding area, home to 40,000 people.
Cal Fire issued an evacuation order for residents on the east side of Paradise, but not for those from other parts of town.
—and, uh, it’s raining ash where I live. How far out is the fire?
OK, yeah, where do you live?
MALE MEMBER OF PUBLIC:
I live on Nunneley—
So at this point we’re—you’re not in danger. But just stay close to your phone.
Eighteen minutes after fire entered the town, Carol Ladrini received a call from Cal Fire.
Hey, it’s Jennifer at Butte County Fire.
We’ve just issued mandatory evacuations for the entire town of Paradise.
Are you serious?
CHIEF DAVID HAWKS, Head of Paradise region, Cal Fire:
When I started as a firefighter in the mid-1980s, we had large fires; you know, it wasn’t uncommon. And we may be at a large fire for a week or two, maybe even a little bit longer. But then the periods would subside and we would go back, we’d regroup, and we’d get ready for the next round.
Now, in the current fire environment, the season is much longer. The summer is much hotter, drier, less humidity; and typically our winters have been on the lower end of average.
PATRICK GONZALEZ, Ph.D., Climate change scientist, UC Berkeley:
We measure climate at weather stations, and when fires burn, we trace their footprint. Those types of analyses have shown that human-caused climate change has doubled wildfire since 1984 across the Western United States above what would have burned without climate change.
Researchers say that in Northern California, summers have warmed by an average of 2.5 degrees in the last 50 years. At the same time, climate change has made prolonged drought more common in the area.
MICHAEL WARA, Director, Climate & Energy Policy Program, Stanford University:
But what we’ve observed over the last several fire seasons is that it doesn’t rain until late in December or even early January, and that means that the landscape hasn’t seen a drop of precipitation in perhaps eight months.
It’s that combination of factors, where you get the high winds; you get the high temperatures; you have fuels that are bone dry. And you combine all of those factors into a package that is really explosive from a wildland perspective, where then if you throw a match into that package, you’re going to generate a catastrophe.
1 hour 37 mins since ignition
All units be advised, the town of Paradise is under mandatory evacuation. The town of Paradise is under a mandatory evacuation. I also have a couple—
SGT. ROBERT PICKERING, Paradise Police:
I was dispatched to the fire down on the east canyon edge. So I slid my body camera on and went behind the house.
I can hear a roaring and I could see flames coming up from the canyon that were probably 30, 40 feet in height.
Paradise S14. I’ve got the fire up to the houses; gonna be east of Lowry.
Fire was now established on the east side of Paradise. Police went door to door to make sure people had left.
Affirmative. I’m not going to be able to get to either house.
The fire was swirling around the houses; it was coming in at all angles, defying any sense of gravity or any sense of, in my mind, what would be normal for a fire.
Too much was happening; too much was going on; and we were not able to do more than just a couple of handful of streets.
Sgt. Pickering made his way to Paradise’s largest building, Feather River Hospital.
NICHOLE JOLLY, R.N., Feather River Hospital:
My husband texts me, and he says, “Hey, there’s a big fire.” And I said, “Huh.” I said, “I didn’t see anything. Where is it coming from?” He goes, “Out of Concow.”
And I said, “OK, well, hopefully it doesn’t cross the canyon, ’cause then I’m gonna have to evacuate the hospital.”
And then we saw the orange glow through the patients’ rooms.
2 hours 06 mins since ignition
For the moment, yes.
FEMALE HOSPITAL WORKER:
Everybody’s clear. All the patients are out from downstairs.
FEMALE HOSPITAL WORKER:
I don’t know about staff, but we got them all out.
OK, very good.
There was people that were having to carry an IV bag with them; they were holding their own IV bag. And then we had people that were just coming out of surgery that had to be loaded up.
MALE RADIO VOICE:
No availability of ambulances to Feather River Hospital. We have fire on campus now, and I need ambulances.
Doctors pulled up with their SUVs and were putting patients in with doctors.
Perfect, are you helping get people out of here?
Hang a hard right.
And nurses are driving their own private vehicles and taking out their car seats and leaving them on the side of the hospital ground.
It wasn’t a normal evacuation that we’ve been planning and rehearsing. It was so fast.
What was that?
There’s one more!
We got room for one more right here as well!
Within anywhere from a few minutes to 15, 20 minutes, everything around the hospital was burning and on fire. It went black real quick. It felt like—it felt like working the night shift.
Is it safe to stand here like this?
I don’t know if it’s safe anywhere. We’re gonna lose the f—— hospital.
MALE RADIO VOICE:
—(inaudible) completely blocked in all directions. Nobody’s—
There’s a local shelter for people—
We were stuck in traffic for quite a while in the hospital as everything around us is on fire.
I got no cell service, and our radios are s— here.
MALE HOSPITAL STAFF:
Yeah. I don’t know what the f— we’re gonna do, man.
There’s nothing we can do. They’ve gotta get the roads clear.
Well, where’s the fire department? Where’s the hoses? Why isn’t anybody putting these fires out? You know, it was so confusing.
MALE RADIO VOICE:
Negative. It’s completely blocked westbound; completely blocked southbound.
How far out is the fire?
How far out is the fire?
It’s right here. It’s everywhere. We are 100% surrounded by fire.
I assumed that the fire was right there, next to me. I didn’t know, at the time, that the fire had jumped all the way into Paradise. Nobody said anything to us; nobody said, “Hey, all of Paradise is on fire.”
MALE RADIO VOICE 1:
—gridlock, and it’s almost impossible to get somebody up here (inaudible)—
MALE RADIO VOICE 2:
Copy, 3922. Multiple structures on fire near (inaudible) at the retirement home. Start towards Paradise.
MALE RADIO VOICE 3:
Yeah, the fire’s about to jump the road.
MALE RADIO VOICE 2:
Picture it like a snow blizzard. There was just thousands upon thousands of embers blowing through the air. It was really hard to get your mind around how rapidly it was developing.
In less than an hour, the fire swept across the town of Paradise, overwhelming the firefighters’ efforts to stop it.
MALE RADIO VOICE 3:
The homes—the homes are becoming involved.
MALE RADIO VOICE 4:
As many as (inaudible) that you can get me.
The smoke, swirling with burning pine needles and pieces of houses, turned day to night.
An area would catch on fire; homes would catch on fire, generating heat, which would throw more embers; that would start another fire. And those winds can push those embers a long ways. And it just kind of perpetuates into one big fire at once; there was no flaming front.
In a typical fire, the smoke travels straight up, where cooler air puts out most of the embers. But in this fire, winds high up of up to 100 miles an hour were blowing the embers sideways.
JIM BROSHEARS, Paradise Emergency Operations coordinator:
The wind aloft, that lofted the embers, was a lot stronger wind than the wind at the surface. And that’s what allowed it to throw fireballs all over our town.
I think that’s what differentiates this fire from the other fires; that they all had a path, and this one didn’t. It really didn’t. It had paths—it had a lot of paths, and they were all happening at the same time.
Oh, my God!
There was no sirens or warnings or anything, no one telling anyone for sure what was happening. So we’re like, “Oh, let’s go check it out.”
We just get in the car and we can’t even pull out ’cause there was cars all the way down. You couldn’t even get on the road.
Jordan Huff was trying to leave with her boyfriend along Paradise’s main road, Skyway.
Whoa, there’s a power line in the road.
Everything was red. Everything just seemed like panic.
You can feel the heat, dude.
I’m literally so scared. I really wanna make it.
I started freaking out because the fire’s coming at us, and I didn’t wanna see it; I didn’t wanna feel it; I didn’t wanna be there. I just kinda wanted to disappear ’cause I couldn’t believe this was happening.
It was suffering, moving that slow. I didn’t understand why not everyone was flooring it. We were all about to burn alive! Why isn’t everyone full speed ahead? Why are we stuck? Why—how?
The town of Paradise and the Upper Ridge has had a community evacuation plan since the late ’90s. In the early 2000s, that plan was updated and included maps with zones in them.
Paradise is limited by the number of routes out of town. Each fire is different; you know, fires come from different directions. So we had to look at varying scenarios and determine what intersections would need controlling under a normally developing fire.
The emergency planners had divided the town into 14 zones. They would be evacuated in turn, depending on where the fire came from.
We actually had a trial run in 2008. We evacuated the zones on the east side of town for a fire coming from Concow. The whole lesson learned from 2008 was the more you evacuate, the more cars on the road, the more difficult it is to evacuate the town. So we didn’t have a plan to evacuate the entire town at once, mostly because it wouldn’t work.
Our plan became, I think, probably one of the most elaborate plans in the state.
In a review after the 2008 fire, a Butte County grand jury warned that the town’s roads had “serious capacity limitations” and made a number of recommendations, including widening the evacuation routes. The county’s governing board implemented some of the recommendations, but there was no funding to widen all of the roads.
One of my personal responses to the grand jury was if you gave us $10 million or $15 million, maybe $20 million to build new roads off the ridge, maybe we could develop a plan that would get people off the ridge—you know, everyone off the ridge at one time.
Roads cost a lot of money. These roads would be roads that, on an average day, they’re built for traffic that doesn’t exist. And then you say we’re going to build four lanes that aren’t gonna be used except once in a half-century? Yeah, that’s gonna be a pretty hard ask to make.
2 hours 36 mins since ignition
MALE RADIO VOICE 1:
—(inaudible) go ahead and open up both lanes and get everybody out.
MALE RADIO VOICE 2:
—(inaudible) they’ll need to stop all traffic.
MALE RADIO VOICE 1:
—flames. Get people moving, now!
There were now over 350 firefighters in Paradise. But with burning embers causing new fires all across the town, there was no clear front line for them to fight.
We conceded—I can tell you, it was 9:23 in the morning—we conceded that maintaining the evacuation routes and civilian rescue was our only objective that day, and there was no orders given that contradicted that.
Although the entire town was under an evacuation order, thousands of residents were still at home.
My mom had me at 41. For many years we were like best friends. We’d rent out Redbox movies from Safeway, which was right next door, and hang out. And I could tell her anything.
Twenty-five-year-old Christina Taft and her mother Victoria lived in central Paradise.
I wasn’t thinking it was that serious at first, and then in the shower I started to smell smoke.
I was definitely panicked; I thought it could all burn. And I told that to my mom, and she just—she didn’t want to listen to the negativity.
We weren’t really arguing; it was just kind of like I was saying stuff and then packing up everything I could into the car so that it was completely filled in the trunk and the back seat, and just with the front seat, you know, for my mom.
It went on for an hour, kind of. She was just not really packing; she didn’t get out of her pajamas; and then she started calling other people to find out what was happening.
Looking outside, it started getting, you know, traffic and darker. I—you know, I just didn’t know what to do. It was either I leave or I stay and risk my own life, and I had a life to live; I told her that: “I have a life to live.” And she was just talking to people on the phone, and they weren’t telling her, “Leave.”
Christina joined the thousands of others evacuating the town; her mom refused to come with her.
It was very slow leaving, but it was all burnt all the way down. People were stopping, getting people in their cars, and I was stuck, so I couldn’t go back, even though it wasn’t very far away.
It just was horrible because I kept calling my mom, and it just didn’t work.
Christina and her mother had not received an official evacuation order. The county sheriff’s office was using a new alert system called CodeRED.
It had an option to send out a mass alert to every Paradise resident, but that morning they didn’t use it.
KORY HONEA, Sheriff, Butte County:
This was an extraordinarily chaotic situation. There was difficulty in terms of structuring the area that we wanted to target.
We had one person who was working to try to get that message out. I can assure you from the standpoint of the sheriff’s office, nobody was waiting around to notify people. It wasn’t as though this—any delay was calculated or intentional.
They did send out alerts using another feature that informed residents zone-by-zone, but only those who had signed up.
We knew that sign-ups were not where they needed to be. But we believed that that was the future, and our big campaign for 2019 was to really increase the number of people signed up for CodeRED.
More than half of residents had not signed up, including Christina and her mother. And many of those who had still didn’t get a notification.
Cell phone towers went down; the networks were so clogged that we couldn’t get through. It was an event that literally outpaced all of our resources almost immediately; literally outpaced all of the planning that had been done prior to this. And ultimately, people have to be responsible for their own safety. The best person to craft an evacuation plan for you is you.
3 hours 06 mins since ignition
This is me trying to evacuate. Pentz Road is on fire; everything is burnt.
After evacuating the hospital, nurse Nichole Jolly was driving south. She turned off Pentz Road onto a side street, Pearson Road. Ahead of her, cars were already on fire and had been abandoned.
I’m getting down into this ravine and I kind of look, going, “Oh, this—this isn’t good,” because this fire is blowing so fast.
The road’s completely engulfed in flames and we’re stuck in the middle of it. That tree could come on me at any moment. This is ridiculous, and I’m stuck behind these stupid f——.
And I’m on my—on the phone to my husband, and I’m screaming for him, I’m like, “Nick, you’ve got to get to me; you have to hurry because I’m not gonna make it.” [Crying] And he said, “I’m trying. I’m going to get to you.” And I’m like, “I’m going to die, and I’m so sorry.”
And my car is starting to fill up with smoke at that point, and I told my husband, I’m like, “The car is filling up with smoke, I have to get out of the car.” And he’s like, “Get out and run.”
And I’m like, “I can’t get out and run. You don’t understand—there’s fire everywhere, and I can’t run through fire.” And he said, “You’re going to have to.”
The town of Paradise, almost more than any other town that I’ve heard of, had really thought about the issue of fire and evacuation, and they had a plan; and the plan was completely overwhelmed by circumstances. I think those circumstances were not unprecedented.
Tubbs Fire, October 2017
We have had a number of fires over the last several years prior to the Camp Fire that had some of the characteristics—in particular the rate of spread and the total ineffectiveness of any kind of suppression effort.
Thomas Fire, December 2017
Carr Fire, July 2018
Climate change has contributed to making fires bigger and more frequent. Ten of the 20 most destructive fires in California have happened in the last four years.
Fires are different today; you need to plan differently. You have communities that say, “We have our evacuation plan.” But if the plan involves driving down a road like the one in Paradise that was essentially blocked by the fire, that’s not a very good plan. If the road is narrow and will become gridlocked—not a very good plan.
So in about 2015 we developed this binder. And we carry this binder in our vehicles. This binder includes evacuation plans and traffic plans—evacuation plans for every community, foothill community in Butte County.
Why, given that there have been very fast-moving fires before, was it not part of the planning that it might be a possibility to have a fire of this speed and intensity?
I don’t think we’ve ever seen that before, so I don’t think it was something that was ever envisioned. As far as modeling, we did plan for a rapidly developing fire, we just did not plan for—we just did not anticipate a fire that went 7 1/2 miles in an hour and a half. I don’t think anybody envisioned that happening.
Do you think you should have envisioned that happening?
I’m not going to answer that question.
MALE RADIO VOICE:
We’ve got four trapped in the basement. Four people trapped in the basement.
An hour and a half after fire hit Paradise, thousands were trying to leave, but many others were trapped in their homes. Eighteen miles from the fire, Cal Fire’s emergency center was receiving 911 calls.
CAPT. STACER HARTSHORN, Cal Fire Emergency Center:
The phones rang and rang and rang, and they didn’t stop.
I have a—a man that is bedridden, and we need to transport him—evacuate him.
It was loud; it was noisy; it was constant.
OK, I’ll relay the information and see what they can do, OK?
OK, how do I—how do I know what’s gonna happen?
Ma’am, I don’t know. This is just a very major fire.
I answered the phone, and I heard a lady—actually I heard three ladies.
Ma’am? Ma’am? Are you trapped?
Yes! Our house is on fire!
They were coughing, choking. She had a hard time even telling me exactly where they were.
Ma’am, you need to get out of the house.
We can’t! Every door’s on fire! Please!
They were in a room with—she told me no windows; “I can’t get out.” And I couldn’t—I couldn’t leave her.
Ma’am, how many people?
We’re trying to get some help over to you.
It started getting real staticky, and I had no response; I was talking to myself, and after 9 minutes and something, the phone went dead. I just couldn’t help her. And I just had to hit the next answer the 911 and start all over.
MALE FIREFIGHTER 1:
MALE RADIO VOICE:
Flames on Pearson, just south (inaudible). All traffic on Pearson needs to be stopped. All traffic on Pearson needs to be stopped.
MALE FIREFIGHTER 2:
Here? I gotta go. F—. Where’d the road go?
MALE FIREFIGHTER 3:
Just keep going.
MALE FIREFIGHTER 4:
MALE FIREFIGHTER 2:
By midmorning, firefighters were trying to make it down the road where Nichole Jolly was stranded. The temperature at the center of the fire was now around 1,800 degrees.
What the f—! Why are these people here? They need to get the f— out of here.
I’m running up this hill, and it’s a pretty steep hill, and I couldn’t see anything, and I’m putting my hand over my eyes, and the flames are just hitting the side of me.
I just was thinking, “Please let there be a vehicle or something that I can jump into,” ’cause I was so hot at that point. And I ended up touching the back of a fire engine, and I’m like, “Oh, yay, a fire engine!”
I sat in the center, and we were stuck; we were stopped. And I’m like, “Why aren’t we moving?” And he’s like, “Well, there’s cars on fire all around us.”
Look, we’re in a fire engine; this is what this thing is built for. You know, this thing’s meant to go through fire. No, those things are not meant to go through fire.
JOE KENNEDY, Bulldozer operator, Cal Fire:
I could start hearing a distress call for air support, and you could hear the urgency in their voices on the radio. I remember it being pitch black outside, and zero visibility, and knowing that that was impossible.
I answered him back inappropriately, using his first name. I said, “John, where are you?”
Determined to get to his colleagues, Joe Kennedy drove a bulldozer through the flames.
We’re hearing this noise coming up behind us; it was really loud. It was this clinking chains. You could hear, it was like thunk-thunk-thunk-thunk-thunk.
I started taking fully involved vehicles and moving them away the best I could.
And he’s flipping them over, and it’s just a miracle. And he cleared this way for us.
What happened on Pearson Road we don’t train for. They don’t teach us how to move fully involved cars; they teach us how to avoid that. There were several times where it crossed my mind that this was a very bad idea. But people were counting on me to keep going and not stop.
Joe Kennedy managed to clear the road so Nichole and the firefighters could get to safety.
He continued working for another 24 hours.
He kept saving people on that road. No AC; no fire blankets; just glass windows in the middle of this inferno.
Photo by NASA, 10:45 a.m.
The fire had now burned around 20,000 acres and was visible from space.
MALE RADIO VOICE:
21, 54. 23.
—(inaudible) parking lot. He went right down the road; he’ll probably (inaudible)—
Our Air Tac officer gave a report—where the fire was and how much was being impacted. He basically said, “The fire’s progressed all the way through town.”
And these reports of civilians trapped and rescues and—you know, we’d already had reports of a lot of fatalities. And by noon we had conceded that the town had basically burned down.
It took only 4 hours for Paradise to be destroyed. By the end of the day, 50,000 people had managed to escape, scattering to neighboring towns.
There was literally a point on the road where it went from hell to there was a sky again, and there was air to breathe; and it was this type of feeling that changes your whole entire life. I just got this chance to be able to live again.
My mom took us back to the house that my kids were staying at, and I see my husband just pacing in the driveway; and he’s just pacing and pacing and pacing.
And I’m like, “Mom you need to go; you need to get down there; I see Nick”; and she’s like, “Nichole, we’re in a residential area. I can’t drive fast.” And I’m like, “Then you need to let me out.”
And I got out of the car and I ran faster than she was driving, and I just grabbed onto my husband, and I’ll never forget what he said: He said, “I thought I almost lost you,” and I’m like, “I know.”
A week after the fire started, more than 5,000 firefighters were tackling the blaze, from the ground and the sky.
There was nothing standing, and there were still homes burning. You know, power lines were down; cars were burned; they were still burning. It looked like a war zone; it looked like bombs had been dropped on the town.
It was heartbreaking to me. I grew up in that town; I graduated from high school in that town; I was the fire chief in that town and honored to be the fire chief in that town, and it was heartbreaking to see.
Paradise burned for over two weeks. Finally, the first winter rains came and put the fire out. It had burned 153,000 acres, an area the size of Chicago.
It was the most destructive fire California had ever seen. Around 30,000 people lost their homes. It took many weeks to identify those who died.
It was actually Thanksgiving Day when they confirmed it.
Christina Taft had not heard from her mother since the morning of the fire.
She was found on the property, in the living room. She was still inside; she wasn’t able to get out and probably—it was right by the window, so that was really horrible, imagining that she didn’t probably know what to do or something.
I don’t think she really realized it was as bad as it was. I blamed myself; I blamed authority; I blamed the other people. I blamed a lot of things, and—I’m not really angry at her.
People, I think they expect if there’s an emergency, they’ll get notified. I think if we did have an order, it would have made a difference to my mom.
Eighty-five people perished in the Camp Fire; a majority were over 65 years old. Some were trapped in their cars; others were still in their homes.
It breaks my heart that they got a false sense of security. It breaks my heart that I and anybody else that was answering the phone that day was not able to give them more information; better information; faster information. It kind of snowballs on you.
Could you have got evacuation orders out to communities that were likely to be hit before they were hit?
I mean, we can always Monday quarterback it. I know what you’re saying, but no. Maybe 5 minutes earlier? But the issue wasn’t how fast we notified the public; it was how fast we could get them off the hill.
The transportation system would only hold so many vehicles, and we were trying to put more vehicles on the road than it could hold.
I have no doubt in my mind that if we, as public safety agencies, had not done what we did, the conditions would have been much worse, and there would have been more loss of life.
It was bad. But this fire affected tens of thousands of people in a matter of a few hours.
The plan was implemented. I’m very confident in saying it was successful. Was it flawless? Absolutely not.
We never gave up hope—you know, we kept looking. And he can’t read or write, so we thought maybe he couldn’t get in contact with us.
Jordan Huff was waiting for news about her grandfather T.K., who had been up in Concow.
So it was two weeks later, my mom called me, and she was all like, “Jordan—”
I knew what the phone call was, because my mom doesn’t call to talk. [Crying] And she told me they found Pop’s body, and I was like, “Yeah?” And they’re like, “Yeah, they found the body in the home.” And I was like, “Oh,” and, you know, I just cried; I didn’t know what to say. And she asked me if I’m OK, and I just hung up the phone, because you’re not OK.
We went out there on Dec. 4, me and my dad only. Literally everything is gone, except, you know, you go out to the back fence and you see a wheelchair. You see his watering hose burnt to a crisp all the way—dragged all the way right next to the wheelchair and a bucket of water.
Your mind wants to make an image—but you don’t really want to make an image, but it does it anyways. And man, is it crazy to have an image like that in your head.
He was insanely tough and smart, and he was a gentle giant.
Just going around the community, and you see someone that you haven’t seen for a while. “Where were you? What happened to you? What happened to your family?” It’s our local 9/11. This is a day that we will always remember. Nov. 8 will always be a date that is just seared in the collective consciousness of our community.
Six months after the fire, the Butte County district attorney launched an investigation into whether to bring criminal charges against PG&E, the company whose power line had started the fire.
Is what PG&E did, or did not do, grossly negligent? Something that is beyond, and well beyond, ordinary negligence.
One of the charges that we’re looking at under California Penal Code Section 452 is reckless arson. “To prove the defendant is guilty of this crime, the people must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that (1) the Defendant burned or caused to be burned property or forest land”—pretty simple; we’ve got that.
“That the fire burned an inhabited structure or the fire caused great bodily injury to another person.” OK, we’ve got structures—nearly 14,000; 85 people; got that element.
The element that is the last element, and says, “and the Defendant did so recklessly.”
PG&E has a long history of safety violations and a criminal conviction for a gas explosion in 2010. Its equipment has been linked to many destructive fires in California in recent years.
RUSSELL GOLD, Senior energy reporter, The Wall Street Journal:
This is a company that it was fined hundreds of times and faced more than $2 billion—almost $3 billion worth of fines. You know, if PG&E was an individual and not a corporation, I think by now they would be in prison. There’s just been repeat offenders; they’ve been on probation; they’ve violated the probation. The problem is you can’t take a corporation and put it into prison.
In the months after the fire, reporters at The Wall Street Journal discovered that PG&E had been warned its transmission towers were aging and that components might fail.
In 2010, they had an outside contractor come in, and they looked at this and said, “The average age of your towers is 68 years old, but the mean life expectancy is only 65.” So, you know, in a sense PG&E was sort of playing with fire over the years. They were basically saying, “Look, we will let these transmission lines age in place, and if there’s a problem with one of them, we’ll go out and fix it.”
Without climate change, the consequences of failure of a transmission line is relatively modest. It falls down, perhaps, or—and it causes a fire, and the fire department comes and puts it out.
So the system has been maintained, you know, with some preventative maintenance, but also with a philosophy that it can be run until breaks. The thing is that the costs have changed; the risks have changed.
PG&E declined to be interviewed by FRONTLINE, but said in a statement that the company disagrees with any suggestion that it knew of any specific maintenance conditions that caused the Camp Fire and nonetheless deferred work that would have addressed those conditions.
It added, “Since 2010, PG&E has spent hundreds of millions on line preventative work.”
PG&E is taking this extraordinary step of saying, “Look, we can’t handle this liability anymore. So that during the days—red flag days—when there’s low humidity and high wind, we’re just gonna shut off the power.”
And it’s sort of a stunning thing to think about, but there increasingly are days and multiple days in Northern California where communities suddenly don’t have power anymore.
PG&E has now filed for bankruptcy protection because of liabilities arising from wildfires. It estimates that it could face at least $10.5 billion in damages from the Camp Fire alone.
I think this is one of the first real climate adaptation problems that at least America has confronted. And this is not a static problem. We have a problem that’s going to grow worse inevitably over the next several decades.
Some scientists believe that fires in California could increase in size dramatically by the middle of the century if temperatures continue to rise.
Everything was perfect that day for a massive destructive incident to do what it did. And it’s in place everywhere. Everywhere—in California, Arizona, Nevada, Washington, Oregon.
And it’s like, what’s—you don’t even want to think about it—like, what’s next? Can it be worse than that? And the answer is, “Yes.”
. . .