Why California Still Isn’t Safe a Year After the Camp Fire
PARADISE, Calif. — Chainsaws were humming and backhoes were beeping. Wood frames were being hammered into place.
It was the sound of Paradise rebuilding, one nail at a time.
“I love it up here — it’s beautiful,” said Holly Austin, watching from a camper as her husband and a small crew worked on their new garage on Paradise Avenue.
One year after the Camp fire destroyed much of the town in California’s deadliest wildfire, Paradise is coming back to life. Eleven homes have been rebuilt, and the town has issued more than 300 permits to those who lost their homes and wouldn’t think of moving elsewhere.
But in Paradise, emotions are raw and fears are easily stoked. A few weeks ago, when they spotted smoke in the air, Austin and her neighbors reflexively braced themselves for another disaster — even though it turned out to be someone’s fireplace.
“It was all over the internet — ‘oh, did you smell smoke?’” Austin said.
“We are all jumpy.”
So are millions of her fellow Californians.
The state remains as vulnerable to catastrophic wildfires as ever. A crisis that’s been brewing for years nearly boiled over again in late October, when the relative calm of the 2019 fire season roared to life in powerful wind gusts and a flurry of new fires.
The Legislature, galvanized by the Camp fire and a 2017 wine country disaster that burned 200,000 acres, approved hundreds of millions of dollars this year for new engines and aircraft, more firefighters, remote cameras and improved emergency-alert systems.
Lawmakers ordered the big three utilities to spend a combined $5 billion on “fire risk mitigation.” Separately, PG&E Corp. promised to spend upwards of $1.6 billion this year alone on accelerated tree removals, line inspections and other efforts.
Nevertheless, California’s inability to quash its wildfire crisis since last November took on many forms.
PG&E’s “enhanced vegetation management” program struggled to stay on track and will take years to finish. Its grid remains so fragile that it has to plunge millions into darkness when winds kick up — and its faulty equipment may have ignited the Kincade fire in Sonoma last month.
While state and federal agencies have scrambled to thin out California’s vast forests, drought and disease left a staggering backlog of 147 million dead trees — tinder waiting to ignite.
This year as well, the Legislature rejected a lawmaker’s request to spend up to $1 billion in loans to help rural Californians retrofit their homes against wildfires. Lawmakers also failed to pass a bill that would have made it harder to build new homes in high-risk fire zones.
And throughout rural areas of California, thousands of homeowners have been dropped by their insurance companies, a simmering crisis that has created a ripple effect in the real estate market. Sacramento has done little beyond passing a law giving homeowners an extra month to find new coverage.
Michael Wara, an energy and climate expert at Stanford who’s advising the Legislature on wildfire issues, said California has had some successes worth celebrating. One big win: Unlike two years ago, when wine-country residents had almost no time to flee the fires, the early-warning systems in Sonoma County worked beautifully when the Kincade fire ignited. No one died.
“But that’s not actually risk-reduction,” Wara said. “We have not actually reduced the scale of the problem.”
Most perilous was the Kincade fire rampaging through Sonoma wine country, fed by 60 mph-plus gusts. It forced 180,000 residents to flee, rekindled awful memories of the 2017 fires — and seemed to make a mockery of much of the work state officials had undertaken in previous months to make California safer.
“We still have hundreds of thousands of homes all across California that are prone to burn,” said Chris Dicus, a forester and fire ecologist at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. “We’re certainly safer in some areas but unfortunately there are communities all across the state that look just like Paradise did last year.”
It was a tease. For much of the year, California enjoyed a tame wildfire season, especially compared with 2018, when nearly 2 million acres of California burned, the most in modern history.
The reason? Relatively mild weather. Natasha Stavros, a fire ecologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said the late-spring snowfalls kept extra moisture in the ground and made “the fuels less flammable.”
Even Cal Fire agreed that it caught a break.
“Basically what you saw out there is the moderate weather,” said Capt. Scott McLean, a spokesman for the state’s firefighting agency. “You don’t have that blast furnace we had to deal with in 2017 and 2018 that dried everything out.”
And then the weather turned.
In just a few weeks in October, as the seasonal Diablo winds struck Northern California and the Santa Anas blew into Southern California, the wildfire season erupted with a vengeance — and much of California’s electrical grid was exposed once again as highly vulnerable.
PG&E’s new executive team, which took over in April, said it has done everything it can in less than a year: 400 remote weather stations, repairs on hundreds of poles and towers, herculean efforts to create more breathing room between its equipment and combustible tree limbs.
It wasn’t enough.
A court-appointed monitor, tasked with overseeing PG&E’s conduct following the fatal 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion, reported flaws with the tree trimming effort this summer. Crews missed 3,200 trees that should have been removed — and some of PG&E’s contractors falsified records.
Last month Andy Vesey, president of Pacific Gas and Electric Co., said PG&E has cleared tree limbs that were close to 1,000 miles of power lines, or barely half as much as it’s targeted for this year. All told, PG&E intends to pare back trees from 25,000 miles of wires, which could take eight years. Other programs, such as insulating power lines, will likely take years as well.
The utility’s struggles to improve safety came to a head in late October. Even after blacking out millions of Californians as a precautionary move, PG&E said one of its transmission lines may have caused the Kincade fire. The line was still running, in spite of high winds, because PG&E didn’t think it was a threat.
Bill Johnson, PG&E’s new chief executive, said last month that “if you take a look at the amount of work this company has undertaken this year, it’s just phenomenal.”
But at the current rate, hardening the grid could take a decade. “Do we need to pick up the pace, do we need to accelerate the pace?” he said. “As soon as we get out of the fire season, those are exactly the kinds of things we’ll be looking at.”
Johnson said the utility’s efforts are being complicated by the hotter, drier conditions created by climate change.
Seven years ago, he said, just 15% of its service territory was at high risk. Now half the utility’s turf is in danger, he said.
“This system was built for a different climate,” Johnson said. “It’s the best we can do today.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom, who visited a Cal Fire station on his first full day in office to announce a slew of fire safety initiatives in January, has repeatedly ripped PG&E’s stewardship of its grid and insisted the state won’t wait 10 years for a fix. But after touring the ruins of the Kincade fire last month, he also seemed to acknowledge the enormity of the task.
“We’ll meet that moment,” Newsom said. “But please understand that moment won’t happen overnight.”
California and the Trump administration rarely agree on anything. But state and federal agencies are thinning California’s forests to erase wildfire fuels. This year the U.S. Forest Service has thinned or deliberately burned 209,000 acres of forestland — slightly below last year’s year-end total, and 20% more than two years ago.
In 2018 the Legislature earmarked $200 million a year, for five years, for creating fuel breaks — swaths of land with reduced vegetation. Earlier this year Cal Fire, in response to an executive order by Newsom, launched 35 high-priority fuel break projects to ease fire conditions on about 90,000 high-risk acres on state and private lands.
Just east of Colfax, Cal Fire is wrapping up a fuel break on 850 acres along the North Fork of the American River. The other day about 100 private workers and National Guardsmen were removing Ponderosa pines, Douglas firs and oaks in a steep canyon.
“We’re spacing the vegetation so the fire runs out of things to burn,” said Mike Webb, a Cal Fire deputy chief.
Steve Garcia, a Cal Fire forester, said tens of thousands of trees have been removed so far. Pointing to a landscape that remains blackened by wildfires of years past, he added, “You create this recipe for disaster if you don’t do something.”
Newsom’s executive order cleared away a lot of red tape; Garcia said the North Fork project would still be years away if not for the governor’s order.
Still, progress comes slowly — about 30 acres a week. The work is the first phase of a multi-year program aimed at treating 4,300 acres.
In all, California has millions of combustible dead trees and 33 million acres of forest, about one-third of the state’s total landmass. The work Cal Fire is doing this year “is a drop in the bucket,” said Angie Lottes, Cal Fire’s assistant deputy director for climate and energy.
The timber industry agrees.
“There’s too much vegetation for a Mediterranean climate where fire is a natural phenomenon that helps thin things out,” said Rich Gordon, president of the California Forestry Association. “It’s going to take decades of investment and activity to return our forests to the correct condition.”
Although some environmental groups have partnered with Cal Fire and other agencies on thinning forests, others still go to court to fight projects that they think amount to clear-cutting.
Sometimes landowners object, too.
Around Pollock Pines, near the spot where the King Fire burned 97,000 acres in 2014, Cal Fire is planning a $2 million fuel break to thin out trees and brush. Even though they wouldn’t pay a dime for the work, one-third of the affected landowners haven’t agreed to have trees removed from their properties, said Mark Egbert, manager of the El Dorado & Georgetown Divide Resource Conservation Districts, which is working with Cal Fire.
“As we go out and knock on these doors, and talk about what we’re doing, the reaction is really variable,” Egbert said recently. “A lot of people are really gung-ho about it … and there’s a lot of people who don’t really want to have a lot of activity going on their property.
“They moved to the woods for a reason,” Egbert said.
Another problem with living near the woods: The people who analyze disasters for a living have decided that much of rural California isn’t worth the risk.
Hundreds of thousands of Californians have lost their homeowners’ insurance in recent years as the industry recoils from more than $20 billion in wildfire losses. Replacement coverage is usually two or three times more expensive. It’s become a crisis as real estate values fall in areas that are already struggling and rely heavily on wealthy transplants moving in.
Legislative action on fire prevention has California “heading in a safer direction,” but big dangers remain, said Jeremy Merz, a regional vice president with the American Property Casualty Insurance Association. “The insurance industry wouldn’t say the work is done. We can’t flip a switch and make the state safe.”
The Legislature did pass AB 1816, which extends the grace period homeowners get when they’re dropped by their insurer. It’s now 75 days instead of 45. But lawmakers didn’t act on proposals by Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara and a legislative task force to require insurers to offer coverage in areas where homeowners have taken steps to reduce risks. A second proposal by Lara and the task force, to offer state subsidies for low-income homeowners who can’t afford coverage, also went nowhere.
A McClatchy analysis conducted earlier this year found 2.7 million Californians living in areas considered highly vulnerable to wildfire. The Legislature had a chance to slow the population growth in high-risk zones, but deferred action until next year.
SB 182, by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, would have prevented local governments from approving new developments in fire areas unless they could show “substantial evidence” of tamping down the risk.
The bill seemed headed to Newsom’s desk until it ran into the Senate Housing Committee, where leaders decided the legislation could worsen the state’s housing shortage by letting municipalities in fire zones ignore state-mandated new-construction mandates.
“We need to … stop letting cities off the hook,” said committee Chairman Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco.
Still, Wiener thinks SB 182 can be fixed next year. “I want this bill to pass,” he said.
Many rural communities are trying to beef up their “defensible space” ordinances — laws that require homeowners to scrub their properties clean of dead trees, excessive brush and other hazards.
Last April, for example, El Dorado County strengthened its law so homeowners could be fined if they don’t maintain 100 feet of room around their homes, even if that boundary crosses onto their neighbors’ properties. Paradise — home of the Camp fire — passed a similar ordinance in September.
But enforcement can be spotty. Cal Fire, which patrols defensible space compliance in much of rural California, struggles to keep up. Daniel Berlant, an assistant deputy director, said the agency conducted 204,341 inspections in the fiscal year that ended in June — falling short of its goal of 250,000. The 204,341 figure includes some properties inspected more than once.
Inspectors found violations on 22,604 homes. But Cal Fire issued only 549 citations, at a maximum of $500 each.
Berlant said it’s more effective to teach homeowners how to comply than slap them with a fine. “Our education effort is where we put our focus,” he said.
Sen. Bill Dodd of Napa, a leading voice on wildfire issues, wants a crackdown. His home county will do the work itself and bill homeowners who don’t respond to a citation within 14 days. “These types of best practices need to be modeled all through the state,” he said.
But many fire professionals say education works best. John Messina, the Paradise fire chief, said the culture of rural California demands a more collaborative approach.
“There are people in California, in the foothills, who are anti-government, who don’t want to be told what to do,” Messina said. Punishment “isn’t going to be as effective as Californians embracing it.” Paradise has the authority to clear properties and bill the owners for the work, but he said that’s a strategy of last resort.
The Legislature passed a bill this year requiring “more intense fuel reductions” around people’s homes. But AB 1516 was vetoed by Newsom, who didn’t like its one-size-fits-all methodology. “Each community is different,” he wrote in his veto message.
Scott Stephens, a University of California, Berkeley fire scientist, believes the Camp fire “was a game changer” — an event so terrible that it’s driving a stronger commitment to safety.
“We’ve never had anything like this,” he said, referring to the 85 people killed. “The financial resources are now available to begin this transformation. … We’ve hit some sort of threshold politically and also in the public, and I think we’re destined to keep pushing.”
This year’s state budget includes hundreds of millions of dollars for improved alerts, 400 additional firefighters, and new state-of-the-art equipment.
But the extra cash doesn’t translate into immediate results. The dozen new Sikorsky helicopters, at $25 million apiece, are being assembled in Poland and “will start trickling in over the next three years,” said Cal Fire’s McLean. Seven C-130 air transport planes being transferred to the state from the Pentagon must be modified for firefighting, and the first won’t be done until 2021, he said.
And in one major instance, the Legislature this year balked at spending money.
AB 38, by Assemblyman Jim Wood, originally sought the creation of a $1 billion revolving-loan fund to help homeowners in fire zones retrofit their homes with fire-resilient roofs and other features, comparable to the financial aid California offers for earthquake retrofits.
“It’s very personal,” said Wood, D-Santa Rosa, a dentist who identified victims of the Camp fire using dental records. “I’ve identified between 40 and 50 fire victims in the past four years, and I’m really tired of that.”
Hardening of homes works. A McClatchy investigation of the Camp fire’s behavior found that half of the 350 homes built in 2008 or later — when strict building codes took effect — survived without damage. Only 18% of the other 12,100 homes built before 2008 were undamaged.
Newsom publicly thanked McClatchy for its findings. Staffers at the Assembly Natural Resources Committee, in analyzing Wood’s bill last spring, cited the story as well.
But the loan fund was long gone when Newsom signed AB 38 in October. In its place was language directing state officials to find money from the feds.
“AB 38 was significantly watered down from a fiscal level,” said Robert Raymer, a senior engineer with the California Building Industry Association and an advocate for fire-resilient construction. “It was disheartening to see the fiscal response. … The Legislature is taking this issue very seriously and so is the governor, but they’re trying to be careful.”
The state dollars disappeared last spring, when the bill reached the Assembly Appropriations Committee. Evan McLaughlin, chief of staff to committee Chairwoman Lorena Gonzalez, said Wood’s proposal hadn’t gone through the necessary give-and-take between the governor’s office and the Legislature’s budget committees.
Wood said he the loss of funding “left us scrambling.” But after consulting with Cal Fire, he realized helping individual homeowners with retrofits made little sense because their properties would still be vulnerable to the fires burning their neighbors’ houses. Instead, entire neighborhoods and communities must be retrofitted together.
“I’ve learned a lot in the last year,” Wood said. “I’m very happy with the way the governor’s approaching that.”
On Paradise Avenue, Austin and her husband, Bill Hopper, are in it for the long haul. They retired here from Valley Springs two years ago, drawn to the natural surroundings and cheap cost of living. They’re living in a camper on their property while they rebuild.
It’s a gorgeous area, but they’re surrounded by fire debris and the rusted hulks of burnt-up cars. Also plenty of trees.
“There is no safe,” said Hopper, who had nightmares last November of not being able to escape the flames. “Fires — they’re going to happen.”
Some of the risk is being eliminated. All homes must be rebuilt according to the state’s strict 2008 building code. Thousands of trees have been removed since the fire. PG&E is burying the town’s power lines and expects to have 23 miles of wire underground by year-end, said utility spokesman Paul Moreno.
Still, living in Paradise is a kind of balancing act — a gritty determination to rebuild and the knowledge that another big fire could happen.
“We really don’t know what the worst-case scenario is,” said Messina, the fire chief. “I call the Camp fire that 500-year flood. There’s going to be times when there’s nothing you can do to keep the town from burning down. … It’s going to take a long time before we get to a point where we’re getting significantly better.”
Jason Buzzard, who lost his home to the Camp fire, doesn’t give the risk a second thought.
“If a fire came through this area again, I think we’d be OK,” said Buzzard, 33, who was the first resident in Paradise to secure a new building permit in March.
As he visited his property a few weeks ago — inspecting the wiring, chatting with construction workers — he declined to talk about the Camp fire. Instead, his focus is on “moving back and trying to get our life back on track,” he said.
It matters little that Paradise will take years to fully recover. If anything, it makes him more excited about the future.
“How many times in history do you get to be part of a town being built? That’s how my wife and I think about it,” he said. “This is my home, this is where my daughter is going to grow up. There was no question that we were going to rebuild.”
©2019 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)
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