AHEAD OF THE FIRE
Of small communities across 11 states, more than 500 have a higher wildfire hazard potential than Paradise, Calif.
Caution: Graphic audio in this report may be disturbing.
It started when hot autumn winds snapped a power line east of Paradise, California, showering the ground with sparks.
Flames shot up in dry grass near the Feather River, fanned into nearby pine trees and raced 8 miles to town.
Eighty-five people died and nearly 19,000 buildings were destroyed in the Camp Fire, the state’s deadliest wildfire.
No one could have anticipated such a catastrophe, people said. The fire’s speed was unprecedented, the ferocity unimaginable, the devastation unpredictable.
Those declarations were simply untrue. Though the toll may be impossible to predict, worst-case fires are a historic and inevitable fact.
And the same factors that doomed Paradise also put hundreds of other towns at risk, according to an Arizona Republic and USA TODAY analysis of fire hazards across 760 million acres of the American West.
While those hazards begin with fire, they ultimately are about human risks.
Phillip Levin, a researcher at the University of Washington, puts it this way: “Fire is natural. But the disaster happens because people didn’t know to leave, or couldn’t leave. It didn’t have to happen.”
The Republic and USA TODAY examined about 5,000 communities across 11 states.
We evaluated fire risk in the 11 Western U.S. states. USA TODAY
Of small communities with fewer than 15,000 households, 526 face a wildfire potential greater than in Paradise.
Hundreds of others are also at risk.
This is how we found out:
The analysis begins with U.S. Forest Service data, which weighs 65 risk factors such as topography, precipitation, vegetation and previous fires, and simulates tens of thousands of possible fire seasons.
U.S. Forest service data shows wildfire hazard across the country. USA TODAY
Those simulations break down the country into squares of land about 18 acres in size. Each square is given a fire-hazard rating on a 1 to 5 scale.
Census designated places, where the federal government tallies population statistics, show populated locations in these states.
Our findings here exclude large cities and focus on smaller communities.
Our findings exclude large metro areas and focus on smaller communities. USA TODAY
Around each place, the analysis draws a 1-mile buffer zone, generally the distance fire embers can spread into town, experts say.
Our analysis included a one mile buffer around each place to account for wind-blown embers. USA TODAY
Finally, each place gets a score: the average score for each pixel of burnable land inside those boundaries. This is the community’s wildfire hazard potential.
On the 1 to 5 scale, Paradise was 3.81.
The wildfire hazard score for Paradise, Calif. is 3.81. USA TODAY
Across the West, 526 small communities — more than 10 percent of all places — rank higher.
Places with a wildfire hazard score greater than Paradise, Calif. USA TODAY
But the wildfire hazard potential, or WHP, is only the first step in assessing human danger. Risks can be magnified by:
1. Evacuation constraints
For towns across the West, the analysis calculated the ratio of households to major exit roads. Paradise had six potential escape routes. That meant an estimated 1,818 households using each route during a mass evacuation.
Major escape routes for Paradise, Calif. USA TODAY
In reality, the demand in Paradise was greater. On town evacuation maps, one winding exit road contains the warning “Do Not Travel,” and several other routes were effectively cut off even as residents tried to flee.
That means thousands more terrified residents trying to squeeze onto key roads during an evacuation. Paradise had one of the highest egress ratios of any small town in the West. But dozens of communities rank higher, and many others are close behind.
Older residents may need more time to evacuate, may depend on others for transportation or health care, and may not be connected to electronic warning systems.
The median age of residents killed in Paradise, Calif. is 72. USA TODAY
The analysis examined the percentage of each community older than 75. In Paradise, 10 percent of all residents were over the age of 75.
The median age of Camp Fire victims was 72. Among the 85 who died, at least 62 were age 65 or older; 36 were over age 75.
Places with both older residents and greater wildfire hazard scores than Paradise, Calif. USA TODAY
Of small communities across the West, 125 have both a higher wildfire potential than Paradise and a higher percentage of elderly residents.
Disaster research makes clear that people with disabilities are at greater risk. The analysis calculated the percentage of residents with a disability. In Paradise, a quarter of all residents had a disability.
Places with disability and wildfire hazard scores greater than Paradise, Calif. USA TODAY
Across the West, 101 small communities have both a higher wildfire potential than Paradise and a larger percentage of residents with a disability.
Many counties have the authority to send “Amber-alert” style messages to all cellphones in range, but not all do so. The analysis identified counties and tribal governments that can broadcast notifications to all phones when public safety is in danger.
Emergency alerts were not sent during the fire in Paradise, Calif. USA TODAY
Butte County, in which Paradise sits, can broadcast messages to mobile phones, but had never activated that system before the Camp Fire, and did not send a Wireless Emergency Alert that day.
Across the West, the analysis identified 1,529 communities in jurisdictions that cannot send these alerts. Like Paradise, 2,506 others are in areas that can send alerts but have never used the system.
5. Mobile homes
The analysis examined the percent of households that live in mobile home parks.
Even when built to code, mobile homes may pose a greater fire risk. Their close spacing and materials used in construction can be fuel for flames to spread.
1,300 households lived in Paradise’s 30 mobile home parks prior to the Camp Fire. That was 1 in every 8 households.
Of the 85 people who died in the Camp Fire, 37 were residents of mobile homes.
Paradise residents who lived in mobile homes , those who died are marked in red. USA TODAY
Since 1984, an estimated 6 million people nationwide have been hurt or damaged by wildland blazes, with more than 2,000 deaths and $60 billion in property damage.
The threat is escalating as human development encroaches on forest fringes, and as climate change increases the severity of monster fires.
The peril may be most pronounced in 11 Western states, where conditions are perennially ripe from coastal chaparral to alpine peaks. And, when the Camp Fire obliterated Paradise, California, last year, it became apparent that entire towns are at risk.
But that doesn’t mean they must burn, or people must die. Other variables escalate those risks.
Levin, the Washington researcher, studied the role of 13 key socioeconomic factors in wildfire catastrophes.
If a community has high numbers of residents who are poor, elderly, disabled and minorities, he says, some won’t have money for flame-proof homes. Some won’t have the physical ability to maintain safe yards. Some can’t afford cellphones and internet to get early warnings, or vehicles to get out.
“That combination makes a community more vulnerable — in some cases very vulnerable,” Levin said.
Last year, upward of 58,000 fires killed about 100 people and destroyed 23,000 homes — record losses over the past century.
But there’s plenty left to burn: Verisk, an insurance industry analyst, estimates 4.5 million households in the West continue to face high or extreme wildfire risk, with a total value of $237 billion. In Montana and Idaho, more than a quarter of the population lives in extreme- or high-risk places.
“What happens when central Oregon becomes a Paradise?” asks Joe Stutler, a Pacific Northwest forester who preaches fire-safe practices. “We’re seeing not just isolated homes, but entire communities engulfed now. Hundreds of people killed. It’s a wake-up call. … Are we going to ignore the problem, or what are we going to do about it?”
Joe Stutler, Pacific Northwest forester
What happens when central Oregon becomes a Paradise? We’re seeing not just isolated homes, but entire communities engulfed now. Hundreds of people killed. It’s a wake-up call. … Are we going to ignore the problem, or what are we going to do about it?
Many thought the town was too big to burn.
Instead, when it did burn, it felt too big for its 26,000 people to escape.
Paradise had a half-dozen emergency exit routes — more than many small towns — but as fire leapfrogged into town, several key passages were blocked by fire or broken-down vehicles.
That meant thousands of people were trying to jam onto the remaining escape routes.
Engineers estimate a single lane of traffic can accommodate 1,800 vehicles an hour. That’s under ideal conditions with traffic flowing freely at high speeds. With stop-and-go traffic — more vehicles turning at intersections and oncoming emergency vehicles — the number drops below 500 vehicles an hour.
And where were the vehicles going? Butte County’s emergency evacuation plan offered this guidance: “Entry and termination points will be determined based on the location, direction and speed of the fire’s spread.”
As panicking residents fled, flames licked at their tires. Smoke enveloped roads and obscured the sun, turning day into night. Power lines and trees collapsed, blocking streets.
A firefighter helps ignite a controlled burn in an attempt to halt the Camp Fire in Butte County on Nov. 14, 2018. Thomas Hawthorne/The Republic
On radio calls, firefighters described main roads as parking lots surrounded by fire and filled with civilians who could not get out.
As more key roads backed up, ambulances were trapped and caught fire with patients aboard, the crews pleading for help. Dispatchers diverted bulldozers from fighting fire to clearing roads.
The chaos can be heard in terrified voices on 911 calls and dramatized in dispatch logs.
Of the 79 fire victims identified to date, at least 11 were found inside charred vehicles or on roadways next to them.
Vehicles sit pushed off the road days after the Camp Fire swept through Paradise, Calif., on Nov. 11. Thomas Hawthorne/The Republic
Six of those were along a short stretch of Edgewood Lane, which dead-ends in a forest to the south. As fire arrived from the north, there was no way out.
Phil John, a Fire Safe Council leader in Paradise who helped draw up new evacuation plans months before the Camp Fire, said he and others warned that the community was in danger, especially after the Tubbs Fire killed four and wiped out more than 5,000 homes in Northern California’s wine country.
“I was telling people, ‘Listen, we have to have a plan now,’” recalls John.
Phil John, a Fire Safe Council leader in Paradise
Even though 85 people died, a whole lot of elderly and infirm got out of this town… I have to sleep … knowing I did the best I could.
The town was divided into zones with evacuations to be staggered as fire moved deeper into the community. A recent USA TODAY Network survey concluded that escape plans for Paradise were among the best in the West. By contrast, more than three-quarters of the highest-risk communities don’t have detailed, publicly available schemes.
Because the Camp Fire was so overwhelming, John said, the best-laid plan broke down.
“We had 50,000 people all of a sudden on those highways,” he recalls. “No one’s ever seen a fire like that. It’s almost every horror story you hear firefighters talk about happening all at the same time.
“Even though 85 people died, a whole lot of elderly and infirm got out of this town… I have to sleep … knowing I did the best I could. ”
The fact that nearly all of the victims died inside at their homes demonstrates another key point: Safety wasn’t just about getting out. It was about getting out early enough.
Residents who didn’t receive or heed evacuation warnings faced increasing hurdles making it to highways, said Yi-Chang Chiu, an engineering professor at University of Arizona who studies evacuations.
“All the people making decisions last minute are straining the system,” he added. “They will have a hard time getting out, and these are the most vulnerable people because they are at the end of the queue.”
The traffic chaos in Paradise exemplifies what could happen in scores of Western communities with limited evacuation routes. In many cases, just one escape road leads through town, or dead-ends in wilderness.
The tiny community of Haigler Creek (population 19) in Arizona’s Mogollon Rim country is nestled along a gurgling stream. It’s a typical summer getaway with an adjacent campground that is busiest during peak fire season.
It’s also classified with a severe fire risk. The only way out for residents who have a median age of 91 is a rutted, 15-mile Forest Service road that in places straddles a cliff.
The first duty of wildland fire commanders is to figure out where the blaze is headed, how long it will take to get there, who is at risk, and how much time there is to evacuate.
Using satellite photos, weather reports, computer models and firefighting experience, they set trigger points for evacuations.
Pushed by 50 mph winds, the Camp Fire outran projections. It wasn’t just the 200-foot flame wall. Embers flew a half-mile or more forward, igniting dozens of spot fires.
The town evacuation plan, with 14 zones, instructed residents not to leave during a disaster unless a directive was issued for their area.
Yet in many neighborhoods, the Camp Fire arrived before orders to get out. Residents who called 911, sometimes reporting flames in their yards, were told an evacuation had not been declared.
When the directive finally went out, it didn’t reach everyone: Like most communities in the West, Paradise had no alarm siren.
While evacuation instructions could have been broadcast directly to cellphones, community leaders instead relied on reverse 911 calls that were delayed as cellular towers became clogged with calls. Many in Paradise failed to get an alert or received one after the fire had swept over their neighborhoods.
Nationally, there is no uniform warning system for wildfires. And The Republic analysis found that shortcomings in Paradise are common across the West.
Few towns have sirens, and residents seldom know what to do when they go off.
Instead, most communities rely on reverse-911 calls, radio and TV bulletins, or Amber-type alerts to announce evacuations. Reverse 911 calls require enrollment. The Wireless Emergency Alert, or WEA message system, could reach every cellphone in an area unless individuals opt out.
This helter-skelter system is compounded by the fact many threatened locations are full of summer cabins, occupied at peak fire season by folks who may have no clue about local emergency notifications.
A home burns as the Camp Fire rages through Paradise, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. Noah Berger/Associated Press
The Republic mapped all locations across the West that are authorized to send wireless messages. Just over half — 215 counties out of a total 413 — have been authorized by the Federal Communications Commission to communicate with all cellphones in a targeted area.
Even in locations where wireless alerts are approved, the system is often untested: Only 59 counties sent out alerts from 2013 to 2019, and just 30 have used the system since 2018, according to The Republic’s analysis.
Butte County, where Paradise is located, enrolled to send emergency messages but authorities had never run a test. On the day of the Camp Fire, they didn’t try the system, instead relying on a private contractor.
The alternate method, known as CodeRED, was set up to notify enrolled residents via phone messages, texts and emails. It remains unclear how many had signed up, but authorities estimate only about half received alerts. The Camp Fire moved so fast, local police fled their dispatch center before a community-wide evacuation order went out.
Since Paradise burned, Butte County has issued wireless alerts at least 18 times, including evacuation orders and flash-flood warnings.
Understanding evacuation directives also may be more difficult for those who speak English as a second language. All but 14 of more than 500 wireless emergency warnings issued in the 11-state region over the past seven years were in English only.
Disaster research, from hurricanes to tsunamis to wildfires, makes clear that the elderly and disabled are slower to escape.
They are more dependent on emergency services for transportation, and more likely to hunker down — refusing to leave home.
A National Institutes of Health study found that, despite increased vulnerability, barely one-third of the elderly make significant disaster preparations.
In an era of increasingly dangerous fires due to global warming, they account for a growing share of the population: The number of Americans 65 and older is expected to more than double by 2060, according to the Population Reference Bureau.
How does that play out in catastrophic events?
When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, about 15 percent of the city’s population was 60 or older, but that group accounted for 70 percent of the deaths.
The median age of Camp Fire victims was 72. Among the 85 people who perished, at least 62 were age 65 or older. And a quarter of the town’s residents were disabled — twice California’s average.
The outcome in Paradise could have been far worse. Local media described how staffers at Sunshine Assisted Living home and other shelters saved hundreds of patients by ferrying them to safety in vans and personal vehicles — even persuading other evacuees to join the rescue effort.
Nationally, Paradise falls in the top quartile for age and disabilities. But high rankings are not uncommon for fire-threatened places.
The most recent American Community Survey lists 125 small, fire-endangered communities across the West with higher percentages of elderly residents and a greater wildfire hazard than Paradise. One hundred have higher disability rates.
Troy, Montana, a town with a population of fewer than 1,000, has a disability rate of 40 percent. One in eight residents is over 75. Enveloped in Kootenai National Forest, the community also has no Wireless Emergency Alert, so only those who opt in get disaster warnings by phone. But there is a siren by the sewer station.
The worst-case wildfire can travel through a coniferous forest at 6 mph or faster, and through dry grasslands at 14 mph.
Flame lengths can reach 300 feet, sometimes pushed horizontal by winds. Temperatures get hot enough to melt cars.
Wherever one of these fires hits, the threat is not just a flaming wall, but red-hot embers lofted up to a mile ahead of the main blaze.
In Paradise, a blizzard of firebrands inundated the town, setting off an estimated 400 spot fires, landing on unkempt yards, roofs and gutters full of dead leaves. Once in town, fire spread from building to building in densely built neighborhoods.
A home burns as the Camp Fire rages through Paradise, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. Noah Berger/Associated Press
As demonstrated in Paradise, the amount of death and destruction in a community depends on available fuels — both vegetation and structures. Getting the landscape and buildings to fire-safe standards can be the difference between life and death.
When Arizona’s Yarnell Hill Fire erupted in 2013, 19 hotshots were trapped by the blaze and killed just a few hundred yards from a ranch house.
Inside the dwelling, protected by a metal roof and a vegetation-free perimeter, the ranchers comfortably survived a firestorm with outside temperatures at 2,000 degrees. Nearby, 129 dwellings were lost.
Before-and-after aerial photos provided stunning evidence that fire-proof buildings with so-called defensible space survive some of the worst fires — while others are reduced to ash and cinder.
That lesson has been replicated in almost every devastating wildfire.
Alex Maranghides, fire protection engineer with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, is meticulously analyzing how the Camp Fire progressed through Paradise, just as he has with other burned communities over the past decade.
The goal is to save lives and homes, said Maranghides, and the scientific evidence for fire-safe efforts is irrefutable: If mirror towns were hit by identical wildfires, but only residents of the first town had created a fuel buffer and made their homes less flammable, outcomes likely would be radically different.
“It can be the difference between an event becoming a catastrophe or just petering out,” Maranghides said.
Yet requirements for this kind of property management run afoul of a common preference for wild places free from government meddling, especially in the many unincorporated communities of the rural West.
A recent study of New Mexico dwellings in the wildland-urban interface found two-thirds of homeowners did not create defensible space.
A firefighter with Cal Fire stands watch in front of a control burn used to fight the Camp Fire near Bloomer Hill in Butte County in California on Wednesday, Nov. 14. 2018. Thomas Hawthorne
Throughout the West, rural communities come with feeble building codes, limited landscape ordinances and little or no enforcement.
The Mescalero Apache tribe in New Mexico runs a program to help thin trees on tribal members’ lots. Above a mailbox where people can submit applications for tree thinning, a paper sign cautions that the wait list currently has more than 200 applicants.
For hundreds of towns and villages, the result is a patchwork of peril that leaves individuals responsible for fire defense, often led by volunteer groups or homeowner associations.
Firewise USA recognizes residential areas with up to 2,500 dwellings if they meet criteria for safety and preparedness. The requirements include a formal risk assessment, a plan to reduce danger and at least one hour of volunteer work per household.
Firewise leaders say a blaze that was roaring toward Durango, Colorado, last year offers the classic “success story.” Residents of the outskirts enclave of Falls Creek were so zealous about their Firewise campaign that firefighters used the community to make a stand, halting the flames before they reached the city.
“This was the pivotal neighborhood,” noted one fire official. “This was the fight that won the war.”
A Falls Creek resident added, “Sometimes you make your own luck, and that’s what we did.”
Across the West, just 380 places have homeowner groups or neighborhood associations recognized by Firewise USA. An additional 150 places in California have Fire Safe Councils with a similar purpose.
The National Association of Foresters says three-quarters of Western states have what are known as Community Wildfire Protection Plans, which must be adopted to qualify for federal grant funds.
Vehicles and homes burn as the Camp Fire tears through Paradise, Calif., on November 8, 2018. JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images
Those plans prioritize areas for hazardous-fuel reduction and recommend ways to reduce the flammability of structures. But they contain general information rather than disaster prevention steps.
In a study co-authored by Levin, the University of Washington and the Nature Conservancy concluded that low-income residents in high-risk towns are less able to fend off fire, and to recover from a disaster.
The threat is especially significant for minorities: Blacks and Hispanics are 50 percent more vulnerable to wildfire, according to the study, and Native Americans are six times more vulnerable.
Yet a recent review of federal grants found that the more socially vulnerable a community is, the less grant money it gets to fend off wildfire. Why? Because the poor and minorities also tend to be less experienced with bureaucracies and politics.
In Paradise, entire neighborhoods were wiped out not so much by the Camp Fire, but via a chain reaction. Flames enveloped older dwellings less than 20 feet apart, passing from one structure to the next.
Flames consume The Screen & Window Shop as the Camp Fire tears through Paradise, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. Noah Berger/Associated Press
That phenomenon is glaring in satellite images of mobile home parks: Paradise Mobile Home Estates, Ridgewood Mobile Home Park, Pine Springs Mobile Home Park, Acres of Paradise Mobile Home Park.
Mostly havens for low-income residents and the elderly. All incinerated.
At least 37 of those killed by the Camp Fire lived in mobile homes or manufactured housing.
Among fire-endangered Western communities with fewer than 15,000 households, Paradise had the most mobile home parks and the fourth-largest number of mobile home units. Prior to the Camp Fire, one in eight households lived in a mobile home park.
But while Paradise’s mobile-home numbers were high, it was not unique: In Elko, Nevada, with a population of just over 20,000, roughly one household in nine is listed in a mobile home park. Elko also has Nevada’s third-highest wildfire hazard score.
The San Bernardino National Forest surrounds Big Bear Lake, a small city of 5,000 residents with a much larger tourist population. About 1 in 7 of its year-round households live in mobile home parks tucked between thick pines.
For communities, and their residents, the cost and hassle of protective measures may seem prohibitive.
But, over the long haul, experts say doing nothing to defend against fire is likely to be even more expensive, if not deadly.
A recent study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology calculated that, each year, wildfires impose a total U.S. economic loss ranging from $63 billion to $285 billion. That includes everything from suppression efforts to property damage and post-fire flood control.
California’s insurance commissioner estimates the Camp Fire alone produced $7 billion worth of insurance claims.
How much difference can protective measures make?
After the Camp Fire, a news collaboration involving USA TODAY checked to see which single-family homes had survived in Paradise, and which were obliterated. The key factor turned out to be a 2008 building code adopted by California. Half the residences built after that date were unscathed, while four-fifths of older residences burned.
In Medford and Ashland, Oregon, a spate of destructive blazes has local officials mulling new codes.
Ruidoso, New Mexico, already has embraced strict requirements for homeowners — and hired forestry officers to uphold them. The motivating force: In 2012, a blaze known as the Little Bear Fire razed 254 buildings, the most destructive blaze in state history.
But dozens of other towns are like Payson, Arizona, the hub in a triangle of wildfire threat. Safety advocates there, including the fire chief, have pleaded for fire-defense regulations, only to be shot down by residents who condemn such ordinances as onerous, unconstitutional and likely to trigger neighborhood feuds.
In the end, fire experts warn that even protections may not save some communities built within forests that are designed to burn.
“It’s all about the fuels,” said Terry Hudson, a wildfire specialist with the Arizona Division of Forestry. “We can help mitigate 99 percent of the fires. But we know there’s 1 percent we can do nothing about. I’m telling you, you cannot catch that 1 percent.”
Pine, Ariz.: At the base of a canyon, every fire season can be a gamble
Ruidoso, N.M.: Amid winding mountain roads, a village pushes back its encroaching fire threat
Cascade-Chipita Park, Colo.: Beneath Pikes Peak, bracing for the fire to come again
Merlin, Ore.: Above a river valley, a rush to keep fire from closing in
Riggins, Idaho: Where the rivers meet, a town guards its lifeblood from wildfire
Leavenworth, Wash.: At the foot of the Cascades, ‘the last significant green area’ in fire country
Idyllwild-Pine Cove, Calif.: Atop a winding mountain road, a community ponders its escape route
Hayfork, Calif.: In an old logging town, ‘You have the risk of what happened in Paradise’
East Glacier Park Village, Mont.: At the foot of the mountains, a chance of a fire with little chance to stop it
Pamela Ren Larson is a data journalist with the Arizona Republic. You can reach her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @PamReporting.
Dennis Wagner is an investigative journalist with the Arizona Republic. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @azrover.
SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Forest Service, OpenStreetMap, Butte County Sheriff’s Office, Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, National Fire Protection Association, Arizona Republic/USA TODAY analysis
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