Millions live in parts of California threatened by wildfires

Thursday, April 11, 2019

SACRAMENTO, California (AP) — Impoverished towns in the shadow of Mount Shasta. Rustic Gold Rush cities in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Highdollar resort communities on the shores of Lake Tahoe. Ritzy Los Angeles County suburbs.

They all could be the next Paradise.

A McClatchy analysis reveals more than 350,000 Californians live in towns and cities that exist almost entirely within “very high fire hazard severity zones” — Cal Fire’s designation for places highly vulnerable to devastating wildfires. These designations have proven eerily predictive about some of the state’s most destructive wildfires in recent years, including the Camp Fire, the worst in state history.

Nearly all of Paradise is colored in bright red on Cal Fire’s map — practically the entire town was at severe risk before the Camp Fire raged through last November, burning the majority of homes in its path and killing 85 people.

Malibu, where the Woolsey Fire burned more than 400 homes last year, also falls within very high hazard zones. As does the small Lake County town of Cobb, much of which was destroyed by the Valley Fire in 2015.

“There’s a lot of Paradises out there,” said Max Moritz, a fire specialist at UC Santa Barbara.

All told, more than 2.7 million Californians live in very high fire hazard severity zones, from trailers off quiet dirt roads in the forest to mansions in the state’s largest cities, according to the analysis, which is based on 2010 block-level census data. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection says its maps show places where wildfires are likely to be extreme due to factors including vegetation and topography.

The maps aren’t perfect in their ability to forecast where a fire will be destructive. For instance, the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa isn’t in a very high hazard zone, but powerful winds pushed the Tubbs Fire into that part of the city, largely leveling the neighborhood in October 2017.

Coffey Park was built “with zero consideration for fire,” said Chris Dicus, a forestry and fire expert at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. “Fire was in the mountains — there was no consideration that fire would cross (Highway) 101.”

Cal Fire is making new fire hazard maps — ready in a year or so — that will incorporate regional wind patterns and other climate factors. In the meantime, experts say the current maps, created about a decade ago, still provide an important guide to predict where wildfires could do the most damage, in the same way floodplain maps highlight areas that could be hit hardest during severe storms.

The at-risk communities identified by McClatchy also should serve as a starting point for prioritizing how California should spend money on retrofits and other fire-safety programs, Moritz said.

California’s state-of-the-art building codes help protect homes from wildfire in the most vulnerable areas, experts say. But the codes only apply to new construction. A bill introduced by Assemblyman Jim Wood would provide cash to help Californians retrofit older homes.

“This will go a long way toward these different municipalities (in showing) that they deserve funding,” Moritz said.

McClatchy identified more than 75 towns and cities with populations over 1,000 where, like Paradise, at least 90 percent of residents live within the Cal Fire “very high fire hazard severity zones.”

Here are some snapshots and the unique challenges they face:

Shingletown: a miniature Paradise

Population (2010) — 2,283 ‘ In Very High fire Hazard Severity Zone — 2,283

Shingletown is less than onetenth the size of Paradise but probably carries just as much risk.

Like Paradise, the unincorporated community sits atop a ridge, and is covered in tall trees and thick brush — ingredients for a major wildfire. Shingletown was originally named Shingle Camp, for the workers who cut roofing slats from timber to supply miners during the Gold Rush era.

“We grow trees like nobody’s business up here,” said Tom Twist, a member of the Shingletown Fire Safe Council, a volunteer organization. Twist, who’s lived in the community off and on since the 1970s, said that when the weather is warm he’ll walk his property, pulling up seedlings in an almost futile effort to eliminate potential fuels.

“I’ll pull 20 or 30 seedlings a day out of the ground,” he said. “It’s almost like when I walk over there, there’s 20 or 30. When I walk back, there’s another 20 or 30.”

Just like Paradise, escaping the ridge in a fast-moving fire wouldn’t be easy; Shingletown’s main drag is winding, narrow Highway 44. And, like in Paradise, the presence of an older population would make evacuation more difficult; Shingletown’s median age is 61, according to census figures.

It’s little wonder that when Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered Cal Fire to develop a list of urgent fire-safety projects, a plan to trim 1,124 acres of vegetation along Highway 44 came up as the top priority out of 35 projects around the state.

Locals say they’re glad the state is paying attention to a problem they know too well. The community had to evacuate when the Ponderosa Fire, started by a lightning strike, hit in 2012. The fire burned 27,676 acres — 43 square miles — and torched 52 homes in the vicinity.

“We’re intimately aware of the dangers up here,” Twist said.

Nevada City: picturesque and risky

Population (2010) — 3,068 ‘ In Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone — 3,064

Since the Camp Fire, Vicky Guyette has looked at the oneacre patch of untrimmed brush behind her mother’s Victorianera home in Nevada City as more than just an unattractive nuisance.

Now, the brush is ominous — an ignition source that could torch the home built in 1859 that her family has lived in for five generations.

The same anxiety also applies to the cedars, pines and brush covering the hills around this foothill city of about 3,100 people, many of whom live or work in wooden buildings dating back to the the Gold Rush era.

“It’s very scary, especially since it’s such a cute little town I’ve been living in my whole life,” Guyette said recently as she walked down the city’s historic Broad Street, which looks like it fell out of a photo from a museum exhibit.

City officials agree that the wooded draws, steep hillsides, narrow residential streets, ancient homes and thick urban tree canopy that define the character of the city also make it particularly at risk if a fire burns through.

“Nevada City’s single largest risk for human life and financial loss is fire,” Nevada City’s hazard mitigation plan reads.

In recent decades, the city also has had some near misses with fire, including one major close call. In 1988, heavy winds pushed the 49er Fire through 52 square miles of western Nevada County, burning 312 buildings and dozens of cars.

“At the time it was considered an anomalous event,” said Billy Spearing of the Fire Safe Council of Nevada County. “It was not the normal for them then.”

With such fires becoming the new normal, Cal Fire is planning to cut a 1,802 acre fire break in southwest Nevada County in terrain that hasn’t burned in a century, helping protect both Nevada City and the adjacent community of Grass Valley, home to more than 12,000.

Nevada City also embarked on an online “Goat Fund Me” campaign to raise $25,000 to hire farmers to use their goats to eat dense brush in more than 450 acres of city-owned greenbelt.

The goats recently chewed a swath through Pioneer Park near Margaret Rodda’s Victorian home, which sits on a steep draw above a creek. But she’s still worried.

“All it takes is a drunk with a cigarette,” she said.

The goats inspired Guyette. She said she might spend the $500 to put a herder’s goats to work on the thorny thicket of blackberries behind her mother’s house.

“We need to get rid of them,” she said.

Colfax: Fire is on everyone’s minds

Population (2010) — 1,963 ‘ In Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone —1,963

On his first full day in office, Newsom visited the Cal Fire station in Colfax to announce new initiatives on wildfire safety. As he spoke to reporters, surrounded by first responders, he was standing in a city that could burn any summer.

“The people who live here have a true understanding,” said Colfax City Manager Wes Heathcock. “It’s always on the back of people’s minds, especially with the most recent fires, the Camp Fire. We have a similar makeup here.”

At night in the summer, Aimee Costa, who lives on a hill above the elementary school, sometimes keeps her window open, the better to hear ominous sounds.

“You’re laying in bed . listening for that lick, that smack, that pop sound,” Costa said, describing the sound flames would make if they were chewing pine needles, brush and leaves.

A former supply hub for gold mining camps, Colfax sits a few miles from the edge of the Tahoe National Forest in the lower-elevation Sierra. It straddles Interstate 80 and serves as the last major stop between the Sacramento metropolitan area and the Lake Tahoe region.