The Price of Saving Paradise

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Every time that Sue Barch has returned to Paradise, California, she has found the town almost completely unrecognizable. Her home was obliterated in November 2018, when a firestorm throttled up and over the edge of the Feather River Canyon and forced her to escape what she describes as a wall of flames. That blaze didn’t just consume her nine-acre lot and the house she lived in for 35 years under a canopy of towering firs and pines: Her family, friends, neighbors, job, and way of life were gone too. On the drive back from her last visit, a disoriented Barch smashed into another car.

“The entire context is erased,” she said from a rented apartment in Marin County, about three hours south of Paradise. “Nothing, other than the physical piece of geography, remains.”

Sparked by a faulty transmission tower, the Camp Fire ultimately consumed 95% of the structures in town, displacing the vast majority of its 27,000 residents and killing 85. It stands as the most destructive and deadly wildfire in California history, and it all but wiped Paradise off the map.

Now, amidst a haunting landscape of cratered foundations and blackened tree trunks, the town is rebuilding. Nearly 400 new houses have gone up, and more are on the way: About 1,200 building permits have been issued since the fire. The town’s population stands at about 4,000. Some live in buildings that were spared in 2018; others are returnees, living in trailers and RVs as they build new homes atop the ashes of the old.

Barch isn’t planning on coming back. Instead, she’s selling her property so it can be part of a wildfire buffer zone. The Paradise Recreation and Park District is in the early phases of acquiring swaths of land along the town’s perimeter, in the hopes of connecting them into a dual-purpose greenbelt fully encircling the 18-square-mile community. If the nascent plan is fully realized, a moat of green acreage could provide space for respite and play. It would also serve as a fuel break, an unofficial urban growth boundary, and an access point for crews to manage the area with landscaping, prescribed burning, and fire containment for when the next blaze comes.

“Whereas other places are looking only at defensible space for buildings, we’re looking at the scale of the entire community,” said Dan Efseaff, the PRPD district manager.

The plan is coming into focus just as a fresh round of massive wildfires rage up and down the state. More than one million acres have burned since the middle of August, largely consumed by two massive complex fires — already the second- and third-largest in state history — sparked by dry thunderstorms in Northern California. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated. With climate change driving hotter temperatures and drier forests, experts say that the fate of Paradise, once a dire warning, could be as a model for other communities living on the edge of an environment that is bound to ignite.

“One of the most common questions people ask in wildfire season is whether people should even live in these communities, but that’s just not a realistic solution,” said Crystal Kolden, a professor of fire science at the University of California, Merced. While climate experts often suggest that “managed retreat” is safer than rebuilding, property owners nationwide have proven to be willing to risk fire, flooding, and other threats to stay in their communities, and in some places few legal tools exist to prevent them; meanwhile, many residents lack the resources to relocate. “The real question is, what are the out-of-the box solutions that we can engineer to live in places where fire is inevitable?”

On a recent Friday morning, Efseaff stood on the remains of what was once a backyard putting green of a Paradise home, overlooking the charred Feather River canyon. The view below him showed why locals have loved this place, long a destination for working-class retirees and as well as a growing number of young families. On a day like this, before summer fires filled Northern California skies with a sticky pink haze and unbreathable air, a homeowner on this eastern edge of town could gaze down to a rushing snowmelt-fed river, swaddled in acres of thickly forested Sierra Nevada foothills. Pines, firs, oaks, and redwoods extended into the town’s front yards and narrow roadsides, lending pockets of Paradise an alpine village air.

Its unburned areas retain their beauty, but the devastation the fire left behind was vast. Advertisements for stump grinding and new prefabricated homes pepper the sparsely populated neighborhoods and commercial areas. Much of Paradise remains unoccupied, as property owners await insurance claims and legal settlements from Pacific Gas & Electric, the massive Northern California utility that state officials found responsible for igniting the fatal blaze. Residents also trying to decide whether to rebuild on the burnt-out shells of their former homes, and how.

The fire taught several painful lessons. One was that powerful Diablo winds coupled with an abnormally dry forest — a hallmark of climate change — could turn an errant spark into a cataclysm. Another was that the way the town carved itself out of the wilderness, with a number of narrow two-lane roads and dead-ending streets, proved fatal as residents fled. So did the dense growth that shrouded many sprawling properties. Improvements to parks and walking paths were included on a list of 40 projects in Paradise’s long-term recovery plan, which was crafted with public input in 2019. Also on the list was a stronger fuel management plan, and better transportation access for residents and firefighters.

A greenbelt could help achieve many of these goals, Efseaff believes, by replacing what was once largely residential development with managed parklands. The benefits could be substantial: Researchers at the Nature Conservancy and the Conservation Biology Institute partnered worked with him to analyze the fire risk of key parcels. Their models showed how strong easterly winds interact with the area’s vegetation, climate, topography, and other conditions. Supplemented by interviews with local ecologists, firefighters, and planners, the scientists found that greening large swaths of Paradise’s eastern edge could reduce ignition risks for the most vulnerable parcels by as much as 64%.

The scientific analysis of the greenbelt shows a complex of five risk-reduction buffer zones linking Paradise to the nearby town of Magalia. But that model is meant to be a conversation-starter: There are no specific plans for what the greenbelt might look like, or what properties would necessarily be part of it. It could include many types of recreational spaces, as long as they include managed vegetation — baseball diamonds, a golf course, trail systems, stables, and even a u-pick orchard are all essentially on the table. One key section that Efseaff envisions would run about seven miles along the eastern side of Paradise, parallel to the Feather River Canyon, about as far north as Paradise Lake. Comprising about 4,000 acres of land, 80% of which is privately owned, the buffer would require several hundred property acquisitions and easements.

Efseaff hopes at least to create pockets or sections of that full vision. So far, the parks district has secured two parcels — Barch’s and one other nearby. Efseaff is also talking with a former firefighter interested in selling his 50-acre parcel near the town’s only hospital, which burned to the ground in 2018 and is still closed. This fall, he will present the fire risk models to Paradise residents and begin to engage more property owners about acquiring their land. “Right now we have an opportunity to make some long-standing change,” he said. “I think we’ll also have some interesting challenges.”

Indeed, the project is likely to face many hurdles, including the fact that there are no plans to regulate how close people should live to flammable woodlands by either the city, county, or state. Buying and replanting so much acreage will be costly, requiring tens of millions of dollars in government grants or philanthropic assistance as well as staffing and legal counsel that the district does not currently have. Town leaders are supportive, but there are no elected officials in charge of this project. Right now it’s entirely up to the PRPD, an independent district, to stir interest among property owners, facilitate the massive land hand-off that would be needed to fully encircle the town, and pull together the resources to turn it green. 

Turning former homes into parks also hits on the ultra-sensitive question of planned relocation: Selling those properties to a new occupant or developer is a hard enough question for many residents in this tight-knit, conservative-leaning, and deeply traumatized community. 

Another challenge may be the lack of scientific proof that greenbelts work as a wildfire strategy. Plenty of anecdotal evidence shows that managed landscapes, whether a Napa Valley vineyard or a trail systems around Boulder, Colorado, can create natural fuel breaks and open up access for firefighters battling flames. Greenbelts should ostensibly do the same thing, and apply the well-established concept of defensible space — areas around individual houses and structures with reduced fuels and other fire-wise design elements — to the scale of an entire community.

But greenbelts specifically are not a common approach for fighting wildfires, perhaps due to the costs and challenges that accompany any large-scale project that reappropriates privately owned land, and they haven’t been closely studied by fire scientists. The concept is “a funny combination of common sense” with a lack of backup, said Deanne DiPietro, a senior science coordinator at the Conservation Biology Institute who helped build the Paradise models. That points to the importance of pooling different sources of knowledge for managing fire — including firefighters, planners, residents, and the Indigenous people who originally settled and managed this part of North America — to develop new strategies for living on the front lines of a warming planet.

For all of the difficulties, however, there are reasons to believe that more than many Paradise residents will be interested in the greenbelt idea. The severity of the Camp Fire, and the gravity of the climate disruptions that fueled it, left deep and lasting scars, even in a state familiar with wildfire risks. In an April 2019 survey of residents, about 30% of respondents said that they did not plan to return to Paradise; about 18% were unsure. “The fire was a monumental event in that it altered people’s way of thinking about things,” Efseaff said. He believes that may affect how some people envision the future of their land. It might also help that two of the town’s cherished park and recreation areas are among the few sites in Paradise untouched by the Camp Fire, suggesting how carefully managed green space can provide a fuel break for fires burning on their edges. 

If other communities take note of the greenbelt concept, perhaps it won’t take the same level of devastation to start building for that future. “It could be a way to scale up the lessons of Paradise,” said Ryan Luster, a project director at the Nature Conservancy who worked on the research.

Several fire scientists interviewed for this article applauded the idea, including Stephen Pyne, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University and the author of dozens of books about the science and cultural history of fire. In conjunction with other strategies — including prescribed burns in surrounding forestlands, an updated electrical grid, and better urban planning — he believes that regularly tended green buffers could reduce fire risk and save lives in a world where wildfires are more frequent, and carry more destructive power.

Still, he warned that any kind of buffer should not be interpreted as something that stops fire. “Some people might see it as a wall to prevent alien sparks from entering the community or a levee to keep it from overflowing,” he said. Instead, like any fuel break, a greenbelt would simply reduce the speed and intensity of a fire by knocking it down from the forest canopy to the ground, where suppression crews could have a better chance at putting it out. Maintenance of such a zone would be key; an overgrown fuel break can become more dangerous than what previously existed, said Pyne.

Designing the fire buffer as parkland — a community amenity used and shared by local residents — would carry an additional incentive to tend and manage the land. Efseaff is hopeful that this multiplier effect will draw support for the unusual idea.

“As we jump from disaster to disaster, our attention spans are short,” he said. “There has to be more than one thing going for a project for it to last.”

Barch knows first hand that there’s no such thing as an unscalable barrier to flames. She had carefully cleared and maintained her property to keep away errant brush and fend off embers. But the Camp Fire still pummeled through. Contributing her land to the greenbelt seems like a chance to turn the legacy of that catastrophe into something less painful, something that could help protect a future generation of Paradise residents — even if that doesn’t include her. She’s still unsure of where she’ll ultimately settle down, but can’t bear the thought of returning.

“It’s hard to go back and look at that land again,” she said. “This is the best solution I could come up with.”

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