Paradise, Calif., was almost completely destroyed by the Camp Fire in November 2018, but is now following the guidelines of a long-term recovery plan to rebuild a more resilient and fire-safe town.
It was two years ago last week that the Camp Fire nearly destroyed a whole town in Northern California. Six hours after striking Paradise on Nov. 8, 2018, the Camp Fire had claimed 85 lives, around 14,000 homes and nearly 95 percent of the town’s buildings.
The destruction was nearly complete and the rebuild, well underway, will be a decade worth of work and investment to build back better. At the two-year mark of the recovery effort, the town celebrated the last of the debris cleanup. Now the task is to remove the hundreds of dead and dying trees, and then on from there, following the guidelines of the town’s priorities laid out by its long-term recovery plan.
“The damage was pretty complete,” said Katie Simmons, disaster recovery director for Paradise. “When you think about how it wasn’t just one segment of our community that burned — it was our entire infrastructure, all of our social systems, our economy, our tax base."
Even with debris removal and the dead and dying trees, the town has already rebuilt nearly 500 single-family homes and applied for more than 1,400 building permits since the permits began being accepted in March 2019.
After the fire was put out, the community gathered to create the long-term recovery plan, a guide to rebuilding the community and doing so in a more resilient manner with the knowledge that, although the Camp Fire may have been unique in terms of its ferocity, there will be more wildfires to contend with.
“I think we’ve made a lot of progress, and we’ve made a lot of progress because the community put together the long-term recovery plan,” Simmons said. “That’s been an excellent guiding document that has really helped us understand the priorities, especially as they were set by the community.”
The plan outlines a series of projects to rebuild with resiliency as a component, and they are grouped in three tiers.
Tier one includes developing an off-site planning department — a one-stop shop for those going through the process of construction. It also includes developing an early warning system and improved evacuation routes. The long dead-end streets and interconnected pathways that led to the carnage were important items to fix in the recovery plan.
Other priorities in tier one are a new sewer system and a new fire station.
Tier two priorities include fire safety education for the community, and for tier three, a new civic center that is hardened in the event of community evacuations.
“It’s a big effort,” said Charles Brooks, executive director of the nonprofit Rebuild Paradise Foundation. “This is a decade-long recovery, if not more, and certainly for the recovery of the town’s tax base. We lost jobs, rooftops, community services, so the recovery will be gradual, and we’re building back a more resilient and sustainable community."
Just removing the trees in such a rural, wooded area will take at least another year or more. “These are large and very complicated projects,” Simmons said. “They are giant projects, some of which have never been administered by the state on this scale. We’re embarking on new territory.”
The recovery plan outlines strategies for navigating the grant process and developing a fire-safe community with the recourses available. That will include projects such as building housing stocks from current building codes and standards, with current fire-safe materials and developing major fire-safe infrastructure such as undergrounding utilities and, eventually, removing all power poles from the community. The poles were a major hazard during evacuation.
The early warning system will provide improved communication when other methods aren’t working. Developing defensible space between property owners is another project. Other safety measures will include wider streets and walkable paths off the main arteries. Broadband is another, as is a new sewer system to replace the septic system, both of which would attract more businesses.
It's going to be a long road, and already the rebuild has been delayed some, partly because of COVID-19. “It’s been a myriad of issues,” Brooks said. “People are working as hard as they can despite setbacks, such as supply chain issues, increased costs. We have a tremendous number of people living in RVs on their property, waiting to be able to rebuild or for their financial picture to come together.”
There is a shortage of appliances and lumber, reportedly because some of the mills miscalculated demand in the spring and then were slowed by the coronavirus. “Once you get behind, then you’ve got the high level of demand, it’s hard to make that up,” Brooks said. “The pioneering spirit of the community is still there, and people are fighting through all this to rebuild their homes and their lives.”