Comment: After a disaster, should you gamble on returning? Paradise edition

by John C. Mutter
Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Not much is left of Paradise, Calif., after the deadly Camp Fire scorched the area in November 2018. California Army National Guard soldiers helped conduct search operations and clear debris. Credit: bottom: U.S. Air National Guard, CC BY 2.0; top: U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Crystal Housman, CC BY 2.0.

Rumor has it that Paradise, Calif., might have originally been named “Par-O-Dice,” after a saloon that was supposedly there during the gold rush days, when the community first started. Or the origin of the name might come entirely from the town’s self-description as “a heavenly place to live.” Regardless of how it was named, Paradise is now gone. In November 2018, the Camp Fire burned most of Paradise to the ground. Will it be rebuilt? Should it be rebuilt?

On some level, the 26,000 residents of Paradise surely knew that a major wildfire would strike at some point; after all, 13 fires have struck within the Camp Fire’s footprint since 1999 alone and 42 fires larger than 300 acres burned in the same area since 1914. Parts of Paradise were even evacuated twice in 2008 due to a fire that burned 400 homes. But because these fires had largely missed Paradise before, residents gambled that future wildfires would also pass them by and they’d remain safe. Losing that roll of the dice, eventually, was inevitable. And now the town and several others nearby are mostly gone: 14,000 homes are destroyed, 86 people are dead and most of the rest of the population is displaced. So, how did people come to live in the fire-prone wildland interface of Paradise in the first place?

The population of the town changed profoundly after its mid-19th century start, when its residents were mostly young men — miners and others who provided the miners with services, like saloons. Following the initial gold rush, logging became very profitable. A rail line was built to take the timber and the rewards of the miner’s labors to market, as well as to bring in heavy equipment that further facilitated the workers' productivity; it also brought supplies for the saloon. A rail map of the time indicates the name of the town as “Paradice.”

For the most part, Paradise of the early 21st century was a retirement community. lists 25 assisted living facilities in the Paradise area, nine in the town itself. This explains the mortality demographics from the Camp Fire: Most of the victims were elderly or disabled; the average age was near 70.

Most of the dead were found in their homes or very nearby, or in cars near their homes. They may have chosen not to evacuate, left their homes too late, or found it difficult or impossible to get out. A healthy young person can sometimes outrun a fire (and anecdotes from the fire bear that out); someone using a walker or wheelchair, or who’s simply slowed by age, cannot. In that sense, this disaster mirrors the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans in 2005, which also saw many elderly people die in or near their homes. In New Orleans, the cause of death among the elderly was mostly drowning, though some was related to the exacerbation of existing conditions like heart and respiratory disease. We know the causes of death very well for Katrina victims, but not for the wildfire victims because the fire destroyed most of the evidence.

It is common that the majority of victims in natural disasters, of all types, are elderly. In addition to the Camp Fire and Katrina, for example, more than 14,000 people died in France in the heat wave of 2003. A great many of the victims were found in the top floors of beautiful apartment buildings lining the boulevards of Paris, beneath lovely metal roofs. These apartment buildings have minimal heating and no cooling. The upper floors were formerly servants' quarters — and they bake in the summer. Almost all of the dead who were found high up in those buildings were elderly.

The pattern of mortality in natural disasters raises difficult and highly sensitive questions about the obligations of others — relatives, friends, first responders and able-bodied community members — to help the elderly in such crises. Should people have done more for the elderly in Paradise? Could they have? In this case, there wasn’t much anyone, even first responders, could do. The fire quickly became a fast-moving conflagration and began closing off the town. Officials ordered an evacuation almost immediately, unlike during Katrina in New Orleans when evacuations were ordered too late. In Paradise, the fire was stunning in its intensity and the speed with which it spread, and no one was allowed to enter the area to provide help to an elderly parent. All you could do was call, hope to get through and try to convince your elderly relative or friend to evacuate.

Now it’s over — a few buildings remain, but the town is essentially gone — and the inevitable question arises: Should people return?

Scientists and fire safety personnel will do risk assessments and will likely judge that the risks of rebuilding are too high, due to the ongoing fire danger that is exacerbated by climate change, and that state and local authorities should not allow people to return. Some scientists, state and local authorities and editorial writers have raised this point in the aftermath: The Los Angeles Times editorial board even wrote “to rebuild Paradise as it was would be land-use malpractice.”

Of course, we cannot necessarily prevent everyone from returning. Some people are more than homeowners; they are landowners, and they have a right to do what they want with their land, within constraints (which are fairly weak when it comes to hazard mitigation). They may see futility in trying to sell their property — who would buy it now? — and thus decide to return. Or they may feel an emotional attachment to the area and may vow to return no matter what (as some have). And if they want to go back and rebuild, and they’re permitted to by law, they can. But for many residents, there will likely be little pull to go back.

The services and amenities are all gone: schools, hospitals, drugstores, grocery stores, restaurants and coffee shops, churches, dry cleaners, gas stations, bars, tanning salons and yes, the eldercare facilities. And, absent a large migration of people — young or old — back to the area, what motivation is there for businesses to return? Why restart in a burned-out zone sure to burn again?

In 1906, San Francisco was all but destroyed by fires that swept through the city following a massive earthquake. Looking at photographs taken just before the earthquake, and then four years after, you can see almost no difference. The city was rapidly rebuilt because it was an essential economic hub for much of the western U.S. San Francisco was needed, so it was resurrected by business interests.

If fire burned down Paradise in the gold rush days, it would have been rebuilt in no time because the gold and the timber were still there to exploit. Today, the economic incentives of those resources are absent. Perhaps a gas station with a convenience store and restrooms will return to service travelers on their way to or from Sacramento, just as the Par-O-Dice saloon may have serviced miners long ago. But it seems unlikely that Paradise will be completely rebuilt. If it were, what (expensive) mitigation efforts would be required in rebuilding so that the town could withstand the next fire? The reality is that social and economic forces, not science-based risk assessments, will determine whether Paradise returns — and what it will look like if it does.

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