How a town destroyed by fire is trying to make itself fireproof

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The Camp Fire that ripped through the Sierra Nevada foothills last fall was the most destructive in California’s history, consuming nearly 19,000 structures and killing 85 people.

Around 90% of the homes in Paradise, California, were destroyed. Only an estimated 3,000 people live there today, down from 26,000 before the fire.

Now the long process of recovery has begun. More than 150 businesses have reopened. Bulldozers and crews are clearing ashes and debris from around 500 lots a week. PG&E-the state utility whose malfunctioning lines sparked the fire, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection-is in the process of removing tens of thousands of trees.

“It’s starting to look more like a place that we can rebuild, and less like a war zone,” says Jody Jones, the mayor of Paradise.

But as climate change increases the risk of wildfires and other natural disasters, the rebuilding of Paradise poses troubling questions: can it be re-created in a way that meaningfully reduces the dangers of a repeat disaster? Or is climate change making towns like it just too risky to inhabit?

In an upcoming story, MIT Technology Review will take a closer look at when communities facing rising climate dangers may simply be forced to retreat, and what researchers and history tell us about how that process can be managed.

However Paradise itself is redeveloped, it will remain on the boundary of the wildland-urban interface, on the edge of the Plumas National Forest, in an area that California’s fire agency rates as a “very high fire hazard severity zone.”

It’s unclear to some how safe such an area can ever get, at least at a reasonable cost. The public toll for such recovery projects and disaster responses will only swell in the years to come, limiting funds and forcing harder choices.

Urban Design Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in helping communities rebuild in the aftermath of disasters, has worked with the community since February to develop a recovery plan and a set of upgraded building standards to mitigate the fire risk.

The current draft of the plan identifies around 40 projects and assesses priority levels, cost estimates, and potential funding sources.

One of the most pressing items is for PG&E to bury its electricity lines underground, along with communication lines from other companies, says Barry Long, chief executive of Urban Design Associates.

The utility, which was driven into bankruptcy by the skyrocketing liabilities of the Camp Fire and other major California blazes, has already agreed to do this. In addition, a bankruptcy judge recently signed off on the company’s request to set up a more than $100 million housing fund for victims of recent fires.

Other high-priority items in the recovery plan include bolstering emergency notification systems and evacuation routes. Only a fraction of residents who had bothered to sign up for emergency phone alerts received them on that November morning, and the evacuation was severely slowed by major traffic jams on the limited routes out of town.

Mayor Jones, whose own home burned down during the fire, said the normally 20-minute drive to nearby Chico took her four hours that day.

“There was fire everywhere, flames all around,” she says. “They were close enough that you could feel the heat through the car.”

Another major part of the recovery plan includes updating building codes and standards. All new homes will have to meet the state’s wildland-urban interface code. It was implemented in 2008, so the vast majority of the structures in town didn’t meet its standards before the Camp Fire ignited.

In a telling statistic, 51% of the homes built after 2008 survived, compared with 9% of those erected earlier, Jones says.

Among other things, the wildland-urban interface rules require fire-resistant roofing materials, tempered glass windows that endure longer under high temperatures, vents that prevent embers from entering the home, and “shield gutters” that discourage buildup of plant debris. Separate state building regulations also stipulate “defensible space” standards, ensuring that plants, trees, and wood piles are far enough away from structures, and properly spaced and maintained to prevent fire from leaping from the ground into trees.

But Urban Design Associates has floated building standards that go beyond those codes, including mandating a five-foot fire break around any structure, which would rule out wood fences running up to a home. They’ve also presented the idea of mandating sprinklers and a masonry foundation for manufactured homes; requiring a storage shed for combustibles like firewood; and eliminating most gutters, except for those above entrances.

Public support is mixed on several of these proposals, many of which add costs and alter the aesthetics of homes. In polls taken during a community meeting in late May, fewer than half of residents supported getting rid of gutters, while only a bit more than half were okay with requiring storage sheds.

On June 11, the town council will vote on, and direct staff to write ordinances for, the building standards that they support. It will take up the broader recovery plan toward the end of the month. Funding for the various projects and homes will come from a variety of federal and state funds, as well as insurers.

“Paradise is going to be the most fire-safe community in America when we get done with it,” Long says.

Managing the growing risks of wildfires in a broad and realistic way, however, requires going beyond marshaling funds and implementing new rules within the boundaries of the last disaster. It demands wider efforts, including “fuels treatment” in high-risk areas, like thinning of nearby forests, prescribed burning, and underbrush management, says Sarah Anderson, associate professor of environmental politics at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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It also necessitates ongoing vigilance, requiring officials and residents to consistently trim trees and remove fuels, not just in the first year after a disaster in one town-but every year in every community facing similar risks.

Unfortunately, memories fade fast. People in nearby towns that narrowly sidestepped calamity don’t fully appreciate the risks they face. And those residing on the edge of the wilderness will almost always live with higher fire dangers.

“I think we can make them safer,” Anderson says. “But I don’t think we can make them safe.”