California’s Camp Fire: The disaster didn’t end when the flames went out

Carol J. Huston |

Wildfire most destructive in state’s history.
 An orange glow from the Camp Fire over the streets in Chico.

Escaping a fire in Paradise was always a concern. It was only because of the herculean efforts of first responders that so many lives were saved.

It started like any other day. Little did I know the events of 8 November 2018 would impact my life and the lives of tens of thousands of other people in beautiful rural Northern California for years to come.

Carol HustonFor me, the day began uneventfully with a 7 a.m. committee meeting at Enloe Medical Center, where I serve as chair of the board of trustees. The center is located in Chico, a beautiful tree-lined community of about 100,000 residents. However, when I exited the conference center at 7:45, I saw a large black mushroom cloud off to the east. By the time I arrived home 15 minutes later, the cloud had changed to an amorphous, rolling bank of thick, black smoke that totally obscured the sun. Soon, small and large pieces of ash began falling—Armageddon-like—from the sky.

I took these pictures from the porch of my house:

View of the sky from Carol Huston's porch
View of the sky from Carol Huston's porch
View of the sky from Carol Huston's porch
Dark sky from fire in Paradise

A quick check of local TV stations and county websites revealed that a fire had begun at 6:31 a.m. in Pulga, California, approximately 33 miles from Chico by car—21 miles as the crow flies. By 7:15, embers were setting houses ablaze in the nearby community of Concow. At 7:58, Butte County sheriff’s deputies reported being trapped, surrounded by fire in an area south of Concow. Dispatch advised them to stay in their vehicles.

Mike Wiltermood, CEO of Enloe Medical CenterBy 8 a.m., Enloe Medical Center notified me that Adventist Health Feather River Hospital in Paradise, a bedroom community 10 miles directly west of Pulga and 15 miles east of Chico, was being evacuated as a precaution. Because of extended drought and nothing but dry timber and pine needles to burn, the fire was spreading rapidly, accelerated even further by 40 to 50 mph winds. The medical center, together with local emergency and governmental agencies, dispatched every ambulance and helicopter available to aid in evacuating the 50-plus patients hospitalized in Paradise. No one realized how urgent the situation would quickly become or the personal risks these care providers would soon encounter.

80 football fields a minute
The next few hours are etched in my memory forever. The first official report of fire at the edge of Paradise came in at 7:59. Immediately, a dozen spot fires began within city limits. Los Angeles Times reporters Paige St. John, Joseph Serna, and Rong-Gong Lin II observed that the ember firestorm assaulted most of the town all at once—and that, within an hour, spot fires had spread halfway across Paradise, congealing into substantial house and yard fires. The firestorm, fueled by windstorms barreling in from the east, caused the Camp Fire—as it came to be known—to grow in the first few hours at a rate of almost 80 football fields per minute.

Front of Enloe Medical CenterThere was little warning. A full evacuation of Paradise was never ordered. Emergency phone calls urging city residents to run from the massive fire failed to reach many who had signed up for notification. Indeed, phone logs show that the official warning system reached fewer than 6,200 of the 27,000 who lived in the ridgetop community. Documents released under California’s Public Records Act reveal that three of the city’s 14 zones received only warnings to leave—not mandatory orders—the morning of the fire. No notifications were sent to three other zones.

The problem worsened as the fire took down possibly as many as nine cellphone towers, and panicked residents jammed system capacity in the remaining towers. Many awoke to see flames licking at their doors, and the remains of scores of other residents were eventually found inside homes they never left. Some didn’t have cars; others wouldn’t leave pets behind. Some thought it was just another scare, and still others spent too long gathering things they couldn’t bear to leave behind.

House on fire in Paradise

A maze of dead ends
Escaping a fire in Paradise was always a concern. St. John, Serna, and Lin described the community as a “maze of haphazard lanes and dead end roads that paid no heed to escape” (para. 3). In fact, Paradise had only four exits, all requiring navigation along finger ridges and through forest canopy. The largest one exited due west toward Chico. In accordance with pre-established disaster planning guidelines, that road became a one-way, four-lane corridor out of town as soon as the emergency was declared.

News reporters set up cameras on that road, near the city limits of Chico, to talk with arriving evacuees. Those earliest to arrive told of driving through walls of flame and fearing for their lives. Soon afterward, cars with melted headlights, taillights, and tires began arriving. Car hoods and truck beds were on fire. Evacuees talked about the bedlam they encountered in fleeing Paradise: bottleneck traffic jams, streets made impassable by abandoned cars that had run out of gas, motorists trapped on dead-end streets, exploding transformers and propane tanks, and people running for their lives. They also saw hundreds of people seeking refuge in parking lots and commercial buildings never intended to be temporary shelters in a firestorm. Hundreds more had to ride out the fire until heavy equipment arrived to bulldoze escape paths for buses.

Teachers loaded their cars with schoolchildren in an attempt to escape the quickly approaching flames, while school bus drivers battled the firestorms to pick up the rest of the students. Many called family members to tell them they loved them and to say goodbye. After calling 911, a pregnant woman in labor waited for help for nearly two hours in the panic-fueled escape from Paradise. The emergency dispatcher told her to lay on the horn and scream for help. The woman and her baby were saved when a biker, paramedic, sheriff’s deputy, and other strangers fleeing from the fire stopped to help.

One school bus driver said he picked up 22 students at an elementary school, knowing they were directly in the inferno’s path. He tried to comfort and distract the students, but ignoring the flames was impossible for the young children, many of whom started to cry and pray. As smoke began filling the bus, some children said they felt tired and nauseous. Tearing off his shirt, the driver ripped the cloth into pieces, doused the fabric with water, and showed the kids how putting the makeshift filters over their noses would help them breathe. That driver was behind the steering wheel of his bus for five hours with traffic often at a standstill and smoke obscuring his view, but he eventually delivered all the children to safety, some 30 miles from where their journey began.

Journey through hell
Located on a canyon ridge on the outskirts of Paradise, Adventist Health Feather River Hospital was one of the first to report fire onsite. Noting an orange glow outside, hospital employees soon began seeing ash fall like snow. One reported that he was working that Thursday morning when word came that the Camp Fire was 7 miles away. Fifteen minutes later, it was on the hospital grounds. The conflagration came on so quickly that no ambulances were available for evacuation, so he and other employees pulled their own cars up to the ambulance bay and loaded patients for transport to hospitals in surrounding communities. For most, it was a four-hour journey through smoke, flames, and chaos, and many thought they wouldn’t survive.

Butte County EMS ambulance ablaze.

Eventually, ambulances from Chico and surrounding areas arrived and began evacuating patients. Unfortunately, after traveling only about a mile, the first ambulance caught on fire, forcing the next ambulance to turn down a side road and stop in a driveway where the trapped driver, surrounded by fire, was instructed to stay. After calling loved ones to say goodbye, the paramedics began creating a more defensible space, right where they were, to ward off the fire. Eventually, they and their load of patients were able to return to the hospital, where they were saved by other first responders waiting for them at the helipad.

Paramedic Mike Castro battles flames from a rooftopThe situation was even more harrowing for another ambulance crew. When smoke caused the vehicle to break down and then start to melt, the crew escaped to a nearby house, one of the few not burning. After crawling through the doggie door of the abandoned house, they set up a makeshift hospital in the garage. Ultimately, 13 people took refuge there from the approaching fire: three patients—one of whom had just had a cesarean section—nurses, a pediatrician, and area refugees.

“The best I can do”
At 9:20 a.m., a 911 call from the hospital in Chico said they had two ambulances on fire. “We need a unit, soon, now, like 15 minutes ago” (9:20 a.m., para. 2). After telling the caller that no help was available then but would be sent when possible, the operator ended the call with, “That’s the best I can do” (9:20 a.m., para. 3).

Shannon Molarius, one of the ambulance crew members trapped at the house, uses a garden hose to hold back the flames.The crew stayed in the house for two hours, using garden hoses to hold back the flames while they cleared the surrounding area of pine needles and other kindling. After the fire passed, a sheriff’s vehicle came by and transported the house’s occupants to the Chico hospital.

Amazingly, all patients from the Paradise hospital survived. Forty-nine were transported to Enloe Medical Center. Others went to hospitals in surrounding communities, including one patient still asleep from anesthesia at the time she was transported.

Home alone and paralyzed
Meanwhile, the safety of other vulnerable populations was left in the hands of others. At 8:39, a woman called to ask first responders to check on her son, who was home alone, sick, and paralyzed. At 8:44, a 911 call reported hospice patients trapped by fire in Magalia, another bedroom community of Paradise. Twenty-six calls requested help with evacuating disabled and sick people who were trapped and unable to leave on their own. In all, more than 1,300 calls came into 911 dispatch that day, virtually all of them filled with panic, despair, and pain. Many of these calls were transferred to the Paradise Police Department, the Butte County Sheriff’s Office, or the California Highway Patrol, all of which were already overwhelmed in trying to save as many people as possible and, eventually, to escape the fire themselves.

Flames from Camp FireEvacuees also reported that the downtown area of Paradise was engulfed in flames. Science reporter Matt Simon observed that urban areas aren’t supposed to burn because they’re typically built with fire-resistant materials and have more defensible spaces. But with a conflagration like the Camp Fire, even those areas can be overwhelmed by a multitude of tiny fires that ignite miles ahead of the main fire. With no single line to fight back flames, firefighters are overwhelmed by the many small fires. Indeed, the focus for most firefighters and law enforcement officers that day quickly became one of rescue, instead of hopeless attempts to put out fires. With roads out of Paradise gridlocked within an hour of when evacuation began, it was only because of the herculean efforts of first responders that so many lives were saved.

Meanwhile, there was also panic in Chico. Parents from Paradise who had dropped their children off at school before driving to Chico for work were not allowed to retrieve them. Amidst the confusion, separated families lost their ability to communicate with loved ones. Others received goodbye calls from family members and friends who thought they were doomed because they were unable to escape. And, families of first responders didn’t know if their loved ones would return home. Many Chico residents, viewing the fire on distant ridges from their front porches, began packing their belongings and leaving town, fearful the fire might soon reach their homes.

By dinnertime that evening, there were more than 55,000 displaced people in Chico. Most had lost their homes and feared the loss of loved ones. Many had nothing but the clothes they were wearing. Virtually every church, lodge, and large building became a shelter, filled beyond capacity, including the vacated Toys R Us and Sears stores. Every motel and hotel room within a hundred miles was occupied, and the Walmart parking lot became a tent city. The need for food, clothing, and blankets was overwhelming.

Compounding matters that evening, the fire, fueled by incredible winds, began rapidly advancing west down the canyons, threatening Chico’s city limits. As a first line of defense, firefighters started back burns and worked tirelessly to keep the disaster from reaching Chico. Some of the people who had found shelter had to move again because of renewed threat of fire. Our daughter was out of town, so we evacuated her home, which bordered the back-burned area. It was surreal how life was changing so suddenly for so many people.

Sky glows orange from Camp Fire

Sky glows orange from the Camp FireBy the next morning—9 November—70,000 acres had burned. At midday, the sky was dark as midnight but with an eerie orange glow. It hurt to breathe. N95 respirator masks, if they could be found, were needed to protect lungs from the toxic air. Stores quickly sold out of the masks. (Some were available free of charge at local hospitals and fire stations.) Anything over 35 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter of air, including ash, poses a health risk. Readings in the weeks following were as high as 10 times that number.

Wanting to help, my other daughter and I volunteered at the Walmart parking lot, sorting and distributing diapers and feminine hygiene products. It was our way of trying to bring some sort of order to a world that—overnight—had become topsy-turvy. Donations of money, food, and clothing poured in from the people of Chico and surrounding communities, but supplies were distributed as quickly as they came in.

No one unscathed
The profound sense of loss, devastation, and uncertainty about the future was overwhelming—both for victims and those trying to help. I cannot begin to describe the emotional trauma of everyone touched by the fire. People wandered aimlessly through the Walmart parking lot. Many were in shock, and some showed evidence of burns or other trauma. Some stood motionless and cried. Others told about their harrowing escapes, and some just needed a hug. Still others were looking for lost family members, frantically showing photos of missing loved ones in the hope that someone had seen them. No one emerged from this trauma unscathed, although telling our stories is healing.

One of the things I will remember most about the Camp Fire, though, is the generosity of people trying to help those who had lost everything. Nursing and allied health students and faculty from California State University, Chico (CSUC) and Butte Community College volunteered at shelters 24 hours a day for the first two weeks after the fire, even as norovirus attacked the shelter populations as well as their caregivers. Many in Chico opened their homes to displaced residents, often to more than one family. Emergency animal shelters, the largest of which was at the Chico airport, housed the approximately 2,000 animals displaced by the Camp Fire. Restaurants offered free meals to the thousands of firefighters who battled the blaze and to those displaced by the fire. Auto mechanics offered their services to repair burned vehicles at cost.

Burned ambulance after the fireSoon, millions of dollars in donations began coming in from caring people around the country. A plethora of donated motor homes, recreational vehicles, and mobile homes followed—so many that finding places to park them was challenging. A San Diego businessman donated more than $1 million by passing out $1,000 checks to each of the 980 students and 105 staff members from Paradise High School who were likely to miss the “idyllic” high school days he had enjoyed. Chefs Tyler Florence and Guy Fieri, the World Central Kitchen (founded by chef José Andrés to provide meals in wake of natural disasters), and the Associated Students of CSUC prepared 15,000 Thanksgiving meals and more than 7,000 pounds of smoked turkey for fire victims. Remaining food was delivered to first responders and local shelters.

Rising death toll
Nightly televised briefings by the Butte County sheriff and disaster response team began almost immediately. Six days after the Camp Fire started, 42 were confirmed dead and hundreds were reported as missing. Approximately 120,000 acres had burned, and the fire was only 30% contained. A day later, officials reported that 7,600 homes had been destroyed along with 95 apartment buildings. The death toll of 48 was sure to rise.

By 17 November, nine days after Camp Fire started, reports suggested that devastation was even worse than originally feared. More than 146,000 acres had burned, including 9,700 homes and 336 commercial buildings. With 71 confirmed dead and more than 1,000 people still missing, the human loss was staggering. Impending rains and the risk of flash flooding, exacerbated by loss of hillside vegetation, made retrieval of human remains a priority. Despite these efforts, deadly mudslides did occur in December, complicating recovery of human remains and causing further damage to the fragile landscape.

By the time it was over, 86 people died in the Camp Fire, and more than 13,900 homes were destroyed. More than 150,000 acres (about 240 square miles) were consumed before the fire was declared contained on 25 November. With the loss of more than 18,000 structures, it was the most destructive wildfire in California history. The 2017 Santa Rosa wildfire, previously the most destructive, decimated 5,500 structures.

But the disaster didn’t end when the flames went out. Brett Walton, writing for Circle of Blue, a publication that provides information about the world’s endangered water supply, observed: “Almost every hazardous element of the Paradise disaster established new benchmarks of public hardship from wildfire. But no state—not combustible Idaho, Montana, and California in the 20th century, not Michigan and Wisconsin in the 19th—has ever had a town of Paradise’s size leveled during a day of wildfire" (para. 4).

Insurers file for bankruptcy
It took time for the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to arrive and begin handing out vouchers for hotels and rental assistance. FEMA administrator Brock Long, in an interview on 15 November 2018, said the agency was dealing with more than 700 open disasters, and it might take multiple years to provide aid to all. It also took time for insurers to begin providing living expense subsidies for the displaced. Indeed, several large insurers for the Paradise and Concow communities filed for bankruptcy within a few days of the fire, as did Pacific Gas and Electric, the company that owned the transmission lines alleged to have caused the fire.

Elementary, secondary, and tertiary schools in Chico and surrounding areas were closed for three weeks after the Camp Fire because of poor air quality and the need to figure out where and how to assign the displaced children in classrooms. About 900 of the 980 young people who attended Paradise High School lost their homes. Those whose families have chosen to stay will finish school at a temporary campus near the Chico airport.

Other students displaced by the Camp Fire continue to attend school in portable classrooms in Chico and surrounding communities. Several hundred students and more than 100 staff and faculty members from a local community college lost their homes. The numbers were even greater for students, staff, and faculty at CSUC. Some students were unable to continue the semester; others finished the fall semester but did not return for spring.

More than 350 workers at Enloe Medical Center were displaced as a result of the fire, yet most have stayed for the extra patients who now need their care—while it is determined whether the hospital in Paradise will reopen or remain closed. Indeed, the Enloe Medical Center emergency department is still seeing a record number of patients, and hospital inpatients continue to exceed licensed bed capacity, requiring ongoing state waivers. Private rooms became double rooms, and noise levels have increased significantly.

No place to go
Also, with the loss of all skilled nursing facilities and elder homes in Paradise, those patients have been relocated to facilities spanning a nine-county area. Indeed, 289 of the 800 skilled nursing beds in the county were lost in the fire. With no place to go—even now—elderly patients who come to acute care hospitals in the region must remain at those hospitals, despite no insurance reimbursement, because there is nowhere else to place them. Specialist physicians and other healthcare providers who had been recruited by hospitals in the area have not come because they can no longer find housing—much less affordable housing.

In addition, many victims of the Camp Fire are unable to find employment. The businesses where they worked no longer exist. Self-employed workers, such as housekeepers, no longer have homes to clean or clients to serve.

According to a special report issued by the Chico Chamber of Commerce in January 2019, traffic has increased 25%, crowding roads meant to serve a smaller population and deteriorating roadways at an accelerated rate. A spike in traffic accidents and crime is stretching the ability of the police force to cope with public safety concerns, as the department is staffed to serve 20,000 fewer people than currently live in Chico.

Trash has also increased proportionately. Post-Camp Fire sewage production in Chico shot up by an amount normally seen over a 10-year period as a result of multiple family members or friends staying in one household and an extensive number of RVs connected to sewer hookups on shared properties. Additional septage comes from base camps of the California Office of Emergency Services, FEMA, and Pacific Gas and Electric.

Extended disruption
In addition, there is not enough permanent housing for those who remain displaced. Lori Peek, director of the Natural Hazards Center and a sociology professor at the University of Colorado Boulder notes that, although Hurricane Katrina required evacuation of more than 1 million people, most found refuge within a day’s drive of New Orleans and surrounding areas. As we are experiencing in Northern California, the aftermath of Katrina was such that many people were left with no homes to return to. This situation puts evacuees on a path of protracted dislocation that often involves multiple moves and extended disruption.

The vacancy rate for rental properties in Chico was only 1% before the fire, and those units were gone within a day, as were most of the new homes still under construction. The price of housing—both single homes and apartments—has skyrocketed in Chico, despite laws prohibiting price gouging after a natural disaster. Some displaced residents have had to move out of the area because they can’t find affordable housing.

Environment still toxic
Many residents of Paradise and surrounding communities who did not lose their homes to the fire are not yet able to return because of an environment still toxic with burned hydrocarbons, asbestos, and other materials. As of January, hazardous waste removal in Paradise was almost half completed, with debris removal set to begin later that month. But, it could take up to a year to clear all properties.

Truck destroyed by Camp Fire

Post-Camp Fire destruction in Paradise

After the fire: Damaged building contrasts with beauty of canyon
Walton notes that “beneath the blast furnace heat that incinerated buildings and vehicles above ground [in Paradise], an intricate network of drinking water pipes below the surface became so contaminated with toxic chemicals [such as benzene, volatile organics, and heavy metals] that many are unusable” (para. 2). The extent of the damage and how the poisons accumulated in the pipes of Paradise and in smaller, neighboring districts are unknown, but utility leaders and outside experts suggest that repairing the severely wounded water system and solving the contamination could take several years. The reality is, it will take decades before cleanup is complete and reconstruction can make the community vital again.

Disarray—both personal and financial—within the Paradise Irrigation District presents additonal barriers to cleanup. Thirty of the 36 employees and all five board members lost homes in the fire. Since the fire, nine staff members have either retired or moved away. Members of the skeleton crew that remains keep the water treatment plant running, take water samples, respond to customer requests, fix leaks, get water back in the mains, and turn service on when requested. In addition, the district is using cash reserves to cover operating expenses. With only about $3.4 million in the bank, those reserves won’t last long.

What about the future?
Jason Pohl of the Arizona Republic observes that some residents of this lower-income, retiree-based city are vowing to rebuild stronger than ever. But experts warn there are not many success stories like that in contemporary American history. Some suggest that buyouts and retreat from the burned remnants of Paradise would be a quicker and wiser course of action than attempts to clear and reconstruct the town in the hills. Kirk Siegler of NPR’s “All Things Considered” questions whether towns in high-risk areas such as Paradise should even be rebuilt. Yet, other groups are asking for a “reimagined Paradise,” and the town council has called upon residents to rebuild the community.

Clearly, some people want to move back, but repopulating a town with almost no buildings left standing can be tricky. There is no business infrastructure, and businesses won’t start up if there are no people to patronize them. Straw polls taken via church groups and Facebook suggest that perhaps a quarter of Paradise residents plan to return or rebuild. The council is more optimistic, suggesting that 40% of residents might return within the next four years.

What will happen remains to be seen. But, it will be a long time before the trauma is behind us, and any semblance of normalcy returns to a place called Paradise. RNL

Click here to learn about the Camp Fire Relief Fund.

Carol J. Huston, MSN, DPA, FAAN, past president of Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing (Sigma) and professor emerita, California State University, Chico, School of Nursing, is chair of the board of trustees at Enloe Medical Center in Chico, California, USA.

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