Nov 26, 2018
The wildfire that destroyed the town of Paradise on November 8 is considered to be the worst in California history, leaving 81 people at the time of writing and hundreds more people missing.
This fire was not a surprise. Paradise sits in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where fire is a natural part of the environment. Throughout the ages, fires from various sources, such as lightning strikes, have been part of the natural cycle of life. Fires regularly burned up dead underbrush and trees, thus clearing the way for new growth. However, for more than a century, in order to promote both economic and real estate development, federal and state forest agencies have suppressed all fires, thus, allowing the build-up of dead trees and underbrush that eventually are turned into the fuel of gigantic, catastrophic wildfires.
Massive fires broke out in the area surrounding Paradise in 1927, 1943, 1951, 1961, 1964, 1990, 1999 and 2000. In 2008, tremendous fires buffeted the town and actually came right up to city limits and destroyed some homes. But until this year, Paradise was remarkable because wildfire hadn’t crossed city limits.
Paradise, a city of 27,000 people, is a fire trap. It sits on a hilltop, surrounded by canyons, with only two roads going in and out. Back in 2009, a grand jury that investigated the problems from the 2008 fires noted the area is “especially prone to disastrous wildfires” and concluded “additional evacuation routes are necessary.”
State and local officials did the exact opposite of what the grand jury recommended. The officials decided that in order to boost commerce they would narrow a portion of the main road through town from four lanes to two. So downtown Paradise got less traffic, more parking spaces, bike lanes, etc. But no other provisions were made for expanding the evacuation routes in case of fire. Instead of more car lanes for people to evacuate, there were fewer.
When the raging fire approached Paradise on November 8, city officials tried to compensate for the lack of escape routes and avoid deadly traffic jams by trying to evacuate the town in sections. So, they only notified the people in the part of the town that was closest to the fire. But the wildfire, fueled by high winds that blew burning ash and cinders onto the town, caused a massive conflagration, forcing everyone to try to flee at once. All 27,000 residents were stuck in traffic, going nowhere while the buildings around them were burning. Many died in their cars when the fire roared over them.
The fire destroyed 14,000 homes and left most of the survivors homeless, having lost everything. Today, they are crowded into shelters. Many are in tents, with temperatures getting colder by the day, and rain approaching. The occupants of one tent city, in a Walmart parking lot in Chico, were told that they had to leave within a few days. They don’t know where else to go. These refugees face hardship, disease and desperation. Judging from the extremely slow and inadequate government response to past disasters, they are in for a long haul, with few resources put at their disposal to alleviate their situation. Basically, they are on their own.
What is also striking is that this fire started as a small brush fire of a few acres. But at every step, decisions on how to deal with fires and how to evacuate the town were based on capitalist profit. And so an ordinary fire was turned into a catastrophe that directly impacts the lives of tens of thousands of people.