RAIN & WILDFIRES, Hope for California?
Last Wednesday morning, as a fellow reporter and I drove the three and a half hours from Oakland, California, to the tiny town of Pulga, our phones kept telling us to turn around. Thanks to the Camp Fire, a roughly 200-square-mile swath of Butte County and the surrounding area is now burnt or burning. Google Maps knew this, rerouting us around the evacuation zone every time we typed in our destination. Since the fire began on the morning of Thursday, Nov. 8, it has killed at least 77 people—a number that increases every day as investigators and rescue dogs find more remains. The list of missing persons initially grew until it passed 1,200, but is finally starting to shrink. As of Friday, only firefighters, electric company workers, railroaders, emergency personnel, and credentialed journalists were being allowed into the evacuated area. The officer at our first checkpoint said officials have caught people trying to use forged documentation to enter the evacuation zone to loot the few homes that didn’t burn down in the blaze.
Once we entered the zone via Highway 70 around Oroville, the roads were empty save for the occasional emergency management truck and armored vehicles stationed at checkpoints. It had been six days since the fire started, and smoke was still piping from smoldering tree stumps and the rubble of burned houses. The air was impossibly thick, casting an emerald and amber matte across the partially erased pine forest. Some of the trees left standing were burnt only on one side, while others had been whittled by fire, like matchsticks balanced in ashtrays. A sparrow taking flight off a charred branch could be enough to push a dead pine to the ground—or into a telephone or power line. Ash was everywhere. More than 50,000 people had evacuated the area, leaving towns like Concow, Magalia, North Pines, Lovelock, Paradise, Humbug, Powellton, Centerville, Inskip, and Stirling essentially vacant. Some 14,000 structures, largely homes, are gone forever, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. So far, the only obvious trace of the Federal Emergency Management Agency is an office in an old Sears in Chico where people can apply for assistance, even though the evacuated area looks like a war zone.
How the fire started is unclear. By 6:30 a.m. on Nov. 8, firefighters were dispatched to contain a vegetation fire, being fanned by 35 mph winds, that started “under the high-tension power lines” at Poe Dam on the Feather River, according to radio dispatches obtained by the Mercury News. Poe Dam is about a mile from Pulga, across the river from where we were headed. And PG&E, the investor-owned utility that powers most of Northern California, has since reported two equipment failures that occurred the morning the fire started, one right near the spot where the firefighters were dispatched on the Feather River. The other was in Concow—which the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection cited last week as a potential second origin of the fire.
Pulga is a ghost town, of sorts, located in a gully on a stunning part of the Feather River. I’ve gone there every couple of months or so for nearly four years, since my friend Betsy Ann Cowley bought the town from some people who had run a hypnotism school there since the mid-1990s. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the area was home to hundreds of people who worked in the Vesuvianite mine and on the railroad and sent their kids to the town’s one-room schoolhouse. Most everyone left by the end of the ’60s, and today it’s just Betsy and a rotating cast of friends working to rebuild the property. Pulga is in the heart of the Camp Fire evacuation zone—and I went there last week to learn how people who had not gotten out were managing. Betsy is there now, and she can’t leave.
No one who lives in the evacuation zone and has stayed through the fire can leave, now, except for in a few areas that have begun to reopen. If they did leave, they wouldn’t be let back in. The people I met who have stayed in their homes, however, did not do so by choice: They were trapped by fires that walled off roads within minutes of the first sign of smoke, leaving them to fight to save their properties or die in the flames. Those who did manage to leave are packed in the homes of friends and family, hotels, shelters, cars, or tent towns that sprouted nearly as quickly as the fire spread, destroying the towns and hamlets in its path. It’s unclear how long the ones who stayed will be trapped in the evacuation zone. It could be days, or weeks. And it’s a mystery, too, how long the ones who made it out—many of whom have formed an ad hoc community while living in donated tents, in parking lots, in the neighboring town of Chico—will remain displaced. The ones who stayed are surviving on whatever food and gas they happened to have before the firestorm. The ones who left but had nowhere to go are surviving on whatever savings they had plus donations of food, blankets, and cigarettes from strangers.
“Time is different for me right now,” said Jeff Evans, who prevented fires from engulfing his home, where he remains now with parents Chuck, 91, and Janet, 82. Living with them are eight dogs Jeff rescued from all over their backcountry town of Concow, plus three dogs of his own. The Evanses are surviving off of a gas-guzzling generator. Jeff described how on the day the fire started, after things had calmed enough that Chuck could take care of any spot fires still threatening the property, he canvassed the area to look for others who could use assistance: “So I said I’m going to go up the road and see if I can help anybody. So, I went up Hoffman Road, and you saw the vehicles there on the side of the road?”
I did see the cars. They were lined up on the shoulder, adjacent to a lake, and had pink plastic ribbons tied to their side mirrors. Those ribbons, Evans told me, meant that there were no bodies inside and no need for further inspection. “That’s where most of the dogs came from—those cars,” he said. The cars parked there were abandoned with their keys inside by people fleeing their homes only to drive straight into a firestorm that was barreling down Concow Road, forcing them to jump into the lake and swim across for refuge.
Just a week and a half after deadly wildfires erupted in California, devouring iconic landmarks in the state’s south and effectively wiping out an entire town to the north, there’s a ray of hope. The Woolsey Fire is nearing full containment around Malibu, while Butte County firefighters are steadily reining in the Camp Fire and may get help in the form of a rain-heavy forecast.
The rain is also likely to help flush out some of the smoke that has pervaded surrounding skies for days on end. Tuesday will be “the final day of hazy/smoky conditions” in the Bay Area, the National Weather Service announced.
Yet the precipitation, which could help one problem, threatens to cause still another.
The National Weather Service has issued a flash flood watch for the regions battered by the Camp Fire from Wednesday through Friday. The agency warns that more than 4 inches of rain could fall by Sunday.
“Properties impacted by the wildfires, and downstream of those areas, are at risk for flash flooding, mudflows and debris flows during periods of intense rainfall,” Butte County officials explained in a statement released Monday night. “Wildfires can alter the terrain and soil conditions reducing the capacity for the ground to absorb water creating conditions for these type of hazards.”
That means new misery for the survivors of California’s deadliest wildfire on record. The Camp Fire has killed at least 79 people, and with the missing still numbering near 700, the death toll may increase in the coming days. Many of those residents who survived are homeless and have been settled in makeshift tent communities outdoors in nearby Chico.
The coming storms also promise a mixed bag for recovery crews and forensics teams in the area, creating a “muddy, mushy mess” — as one expert told Reuters — but potentially easing search efforts in the long run, as well.
“You get rid of the dust, these dogs have a better chance at pinpointing and following their nose to where there may be remains,” Shawn Boyd of the state’s Office of Emergency Services told a local CNN affiliate.
Check out our sources: