An Unexpected Firestorm

November 8th, 2018 – It was supposed to be a day like any other. Instead, it was the beginning of a fiery hellscape that would rage uncontrolled for 17 days, changing the lives of tens of thousands of people forever before it was over and done with.

The Camp Fire was a ferocious wildfire that began in Butte County, California, near Poe Dam in the western foothills of the Sierra Mountains. It is the deadliest fire in California’s  history, killing 85 people, and completely destroying the towns of Paradise and Concow, among others. It ultimately displaced 50,000 individuals, destroyed 18,000 structures, and wrought $16.5 billion in damages, a quarter of which was uninsured. The Camp Fire has the unwelcome distinction of being the world’s costliest disaster in 2018, a year that also saw Hurricane Florence and Hurricane Michael make landfall in the United States. It is difficult to accurately put the scale of the Camp Fire’s destruction into words.

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A PG&E worker runs while dealing with downed power lines during Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif.. on Thursday, November 8, 2018. (Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle);

Fifteen miles away, in nearby Chico, was Courtney Charter, a CivicSpark AmeriCorps Climate Fellow. CivicSpark is a year-long California AmeriCorps program that focuses on building local government capacity to address community resilience issues related to climate change, water resource management, housing, and mobility. Courtney had been in Chico for just over two months, working in the City of Chico’s Community Development Department on their Extreme Heat Preparedness Plan. She had just completed drafting an outline of the plan, which most notably called for the creation of a summertime Cooling Center for the homeless. Now they were about to begin reaching out to stakeholders like the local police department, seeking political and financial support for the plan so that it could move forward.

Then, everything changed.

Courtney woke up on the morning of November 8th like any other. When she finally managed to escape the grasp of her bed, however, she found that something was amiss- her neighbor Charles was standing in her kitchen with his baby in his arms. “You see that giant smoke out there in the distance? Looks like there’s a wildfire burning out some way.”

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The Camp Fire burns in the hills on November 11, 2018 near Oroville, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Having experienced wildfires in the past, Courtney was not perturbed by the billowing smoke in the eastern sky, and began biking to work as she normally did, forever seeking to reduce her carbon footprint, even in sub-optimal conditions. The scent of the fire was strong in the air. As she peddled her way to her project site, she could smell scent shifts in the wind, occasionally getting a horrid waft that indicated there were things burning that weren’t supposed to be.

At work that day, it was hard to focus on her project. The Camp Fire was getting rapidly worse, and it was hard to get updates. Emergency alert systems in Paradise broke down as the city was burned to the ground. The name of the wildfire did not make finding information any easier, as searches for ‘campfire’ produced all kinds of results related to the more menial, garden variety fires associated with recreational camping. The best source of information became that of an ex-firefighter, Dave Tousa, who was giving updates from the scene and breaking down fire maps to predict where the blaze might be heading next.

There was a real worry that the fire might reach Chico as well. The main concern was over it reaching Bidwell Park, which runs from the Northeastern outskirts of Chico into the heart of downtown. If the Camp Fire continued West and jumped over Deer Creek Highway, Bidwell Park would create a clear path into the densest parts of the city that surround the California State University Chico campus. One of Courtney’s roommates was quite worried about the fire wreaking havoc on Chico, so on the second night they held a house meeting in their kitchen to discuss what their evacuation plan was going to be. In a worst case scenario, Courtney planned on relying on her trusty bicycle to escape, as she worried about getting stuck in traffic amongst the Chico citizenry scrambling to evacuate.

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Pictured: Redding GIS map showing the area burned by the Camp Fire, in proximity to the City of Chico (Camp Fire burn area shown in gray).

On the second day, Courtney broke down and drove to work, on account of the smoke and horrible air quality. She described it as everything feeling sad, and eerie, against the dark backdrop of the smoke that blotted out the sun. You could sense the loss of life in the air, knowing that people had died and families lives destroyed. It felt helpless, unable to do anything to help stop what was happening.

When she finally arrived to work, Courtney found that her supervisor, Brendan Vieg, Deputy Director of the Chico Community Development Department, had been up all night, having been placed on an emergency task force. He had already been covering the workload of another vacated position before the wildfire, and now he was even more overwhelmed. Courtney recalled her Extreme Heat Preparedness project feeling suddenly very insignificant, in the face of so much danger and devastation from the Camp Fire.

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Evacuee Jonathan Taylor stands on the road to take photos of the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, on Friday, Nov. 9, 2018. His house and family business were both in Paradise. (Gabrielle Lurie/The Chronicle);

It was clear by just looking around that nothing of this magnitude had happened before, and that no one was prepared to handle something like this. All available time and resources were put towards dealing with the fallout from the Camp Fire, but as more and more refugees from the Camp Fire began to arrive in Chico, things began to get more and more hectic.

Due to its proximity to Paradise, Chico received a plurality of the refugees from the Camp Fire. In all, an estimated 10,000-20,000 additional people are now living in Chico, the equivalent of a 15-20 year population growth overnight. This has strained the city’s infrastructure and resources, congesting traffic, causing long lines at places like the local Post Office (where Paradise residents’ mail had been rerouted), and worsening an already bad housing shortage in the area.

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ABOVE: Crane Ruelas and Vanessa Ruelas, volunteers at a makeshift medical station, help a displaced resident with an open wound at a tent city where evacuees of the Camp Fire have gathered in Chico. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times);
BELOW:Chris Yarbrough, who lost his home in the Camp Fire, plays a donated guitar in a tent city set up by evacuees in a Chico parking lot.  (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times);

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When people affected by the Camp Fire began to arrive in Chico, churches opened their doors to them, and residents offered them places to stay in their homes and Airbnbs. With such a high number of refugees, however, this was not enough to shelter everyone. Many people set up trailers and tents in the parking lot of the local mall and Walmart in the immediate aftermath of the fire, along with an aid station outside of the old Sears. City officials are unsure if they should build a massive influx of housing for all of these new people, because it is unclear right now if Paradise will be rebuilt, and these people will move back or not.

Courtney described the whole scene as looking ‘post-apocalyptic’, as she tried to do her best not to add to the chaos of people in town. She attempted to join the volunteers of people (like one of her roommates) who were helping to prepare meals for refugees and firefighters, but the vetting process ended up being long winded and complicated, and before she could complete the process, she left for an extended break back home for Thanksgiving.

When she returned, the Camp Fire had finally been contained, and Courtney found herself asking the same question as many others who were affected by the Camp Fire- where to go from here? She felt lost and confused, with no clear path forward. She felt silly working on her project, knowing that it was something distant and meaningless in the face of the disaster that had just transpired. Her supervisor was still incredibly busy trying to deal with all of the pressing issues that were on his plate, and Courtney (rightly so) felt weird bothering him about details regarding the Extreme Heat Preparedness plan of the distant future. The next few weeks were incredibly strange, as Courtney began to wonder what she was doing out there in Chico in the first place.

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A firefighter sprays water on a controlled burn at a wildfire, Friday, Nov. 9, 2018, in Magalia, Calif. (AP Photo/John Locher);

Luckily, after Christmas break, Courtney got some needed redirection from her supervisor and department, who adjusted her project to account for the new reality that the City of Chico found itself in. Her work on the Extreme Heat Preparedness plan was to be no more, and instead she would begin conducting public outreach efforts for an update of Chico’s Climate Action Plan. Perhaps even more importantly, Courtney was reassigned to a new supervisor, Mark Stemen, a member of the city’s Sustainability Taskforce and Professor at CSU Chico, who would be able to meet with Courtney regularly and give her direction on her new project, since his work is not directly related to post-Camp Fire relief efforts.

As climate change continues to get worse, wildfires are projected to become dramatically worse and more frequent than they already are. By hearing about Courtney’s experience, we can reflect on how any number of us might have to deal with situations like these in the future. The City of Chico is still grappling with the pervasive impact of the Camp Fire, and so is Courtney. Her experience as a CivicSpark fellow has been fundamentally altered as a result of it, but she has found ways to be resilient in the face of these unforeseeable circumstances.

Better preparedness could have helped lessen the impact of the Camp Fire, but ultimately it is extremely difficult to adequately prepare for crises of this magnitude. In the face of worsening natural disasters as a result of climate change, we need to remember that we are all in this together, and to do our best in looking out for one another in times when we might find it to be the most difficult. If we don’t, we will all experience greater misery in our own times of need, more spiteful and alone than we ever should have allowed ourselves to be.

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Story based on an interview with Courtney Charter. Many thanks to her for taking the time to speak with The Backyard!

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