In Fireplace Scorched California, City Goals To Purchase The Highest At-Danger Properties : NPR

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The campfire destroyed thousands of homes and businesses in Paradise, California. Kirk Siegler / NPR hide caption

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Kirk Siegler / NPR

The campfire destroyed thousands of homes and businesses in Paradise, California.

Kirk Siegler / NPR

In the heat of the afternoon, the smoke from the largest conflagration in the United States, the Dixie Fire, penetrates the California paradise.

“It literally hangs over your head,” says Dan Efseaff, director of Paradise Recreation and District.

For many locals, seeing and smelling the smoke is a constant, albeit ominous, reminder of the 2018 campfire that killed 85 people and destroyed around 19,000 buildings. The Dixie Fire lit almost in the same place.

“We had a few days [with] The sun has faded out, it was dark as night, “says Efseaff, as he turns his SUV off a freeway that is lined on both sides by stumps of cut, charred pines. Then it turns right onto a narrow, steep, curvy road Dirt road leads to the edge of the canyon where the flames invaded paradise almost three years ago.

Fire trucks can’t get in to protect homes in places like this because it’s too dangerous. And while the burned houses in this flattened area probably wouldn’t have gotten permits in this day and age, they’re not an anomaly in the libertarian rural west. There’s a legacy of loose zoning, and some people have to live in places like this because it’s cheaper.

“This is something a fire truck wouldn’t even have fun if it broke down,” he says.

Dan Efseaff leads efforts to buy risky land for forest fires and convert them into green spaces to cushion future wildfires. Kirk Siegler / NPR hide caption

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Kirk Siegler / NPR

Dan Efseaff leads efforts to buy risky land for forest fires and convert them into green spaces to cushion future wildfires.

Kirk Siegler / NPR

But that’s exactly why Efseaff has such properties in mind. It is part of a new, ambitious city effort to identify the riskiest properties in the fire area and, if there are willing sellers, buy them and convert them to fire-resistant green spaces.

“There have been so many cases of these fires that people know we have to do something else,” he says.

The idea is to connect the burned-out plots with the city’s existing park area. This is good for adding more recovery, but it could also work as a fuel break. The Efseaff division could manage such forests strictly in the hopes that the next forest fire here will slow down and give the firefighters a chance.

“Each of these lots that we look at in terms of what we can do to limit the spread of fire is a staging area,” says Efseaff. “I think it will make the community safer.”

What will it cost?

This is not a great domain. The park program is voluntary. So far they have acquired around 300 hectares of new land, and another 500 hectares are being planned, mostly paid for with charitable grants and donations. However, Efseaff estimates they could need $ 20 million or more to have serious impact from a forest fire prevention perspective.

That sounds like a lot. But keep in mind that the campfire caused about $ 16 billion in damage in 2018, the world’s costliest disaster that year. And these days, the U.S. government is spending more than $ 2 billion on firefighting with the main goal of keeping flames away from homes and entire communities.

Efseaff says in Paradise that there is a new way of thinking that the city has to be as climate and forest fire resistant as possible.

“We will have to learn to live better with it and not just hope for the best as it was in the past,” he says.

The federal government has been buying up people who live in flood risk areas for almost three decades. And since the west is boiling in extreme drought, there is an interest in repeating this in certain high risk fire zones. A recent amendment to federal law made funding available to study the feasibility of this move in places like Sierra Nevada, and Paradise is eager for federal assistance.

Michael Wara, a Stanford climate resilience expert, says what goes on in paradise could be a model for many other forested, combustible communities.
But he’s not sure if it will work in places that haven’t been burned yet.

“A bigger challenge is getting people in existing homes to be ready to leave their homes and communities so that those homes can be demolished to create that type of space,” he says.

Wara believes this will be even more difficult in California, where many people have moved to cities like Paradise because they can’t afford to live anywhere else.

“The California real estate crisis is really making it difficult to respond to the forest fire crisis,” he says.

Why “hardening” houses can be cheaper

By and large, experts interviewed for this story say that public money could be better used to “harden” existing homes, get them to fire-safe building codes, and keep the bushes and shrubbery around them clear.

Of course, each option is expensive. According to the Western think tank Headwaters Economics, around 40 million people from the west are currently living on the potential path of forest fires.

But remember, last year alone, the US government spent $ 2.2 billion on repression and CalFire spent hundreds of millions more. According to the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho, the numbers have risen steadily since 1985.

In Paradise, there is a sense of urgency behind all reforms, as the pace of reconstruction surprised even the city guides.

Jim Broshears, the city’s emergency coordinator and longtime director of forest fires in the Sierra, stands on burned-out property along the city’s main artery, the Skyway. On a new morning there was a hum of construction vehicles and other traffic.

“This traffic is proof that people live here, work here, something is happening here,” says Broshears.

Broshears’ house was one of the few spared in 2018, which he says had at least in part to do with the refractory materials and that he cleared the whole bush and created “reasonable space”. He says another great catastrophic wildfire like the once-unimaginable campfire could happen again.

“We need to rethink what’s possible,” says Broshears.

For Broshears, this means all of the mitigation strategies, from clearing shrubbery on vacant lots like the one it stands on, to adding more green parkland in strategic locations to act as buffer zones. Before the campfire, this town was built into a dense, overgrown forest, where forest fires were largely suppressed for almost a century.

“They go from a natural population of 30 trees per acre to 150 trees per acre [and] the health of the forest is endangered, “says Broshears.” So you won’t see the new forest in paradise. “

Tree stumps from recently felled trees in the footprint of the deadly campfire. Around 40,000 trees have now been removed around Paradise. Kirk Siegler / NPR hide caption

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Kirk Siegler / NPR

Tree stumps from recently felled trees in the footprint of the deadly campfire. Around 40,000 trees have now been removed around Paradise.

Kirk Siegler / NPR

You have removed almost 40,000 trees here. Depending on who you ask, the city is an eerie skeleton of its former selves or a blank slate, a fresh start.

Selling out was ‘the right move’ for a family

When Helene and Paul Baker return to the family property in a ravine by a stream, they hardly recognize it.

“You wouldn’t know, but there’s a beautiful stream down there, and everything has been cleared,” the couple said during a recent visit.

They lost a single-family home at Camp Fire that Helene’s parents had built a long time ago on these three acres. When they heard the park department was interested, it was an easy decision to sell them. This land will open public access to 18 hectares of parkland on an adjacent hill.

Eager to see their old family land “turned into something beautiful”, Helene and Paul Baker were among the first to sell property to the local park administration. Kirk Siegler / NPR hide caption

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Kirk Siegler / NPR

Eager to see their old family land “turned into something beautiful”, Helene and Paul Baker were among the first to sell property to the local park administration.

Kirk Siegler / NPR

“We were happy with the idea that my people’s old property could be turned into something beautiful instead of just building a new house,” says Helene.

The Bakers were among the first vendors to join the program. City officials hope that more will follow them as soon as PG&E settlement funds for fire survivors are received again and when or when the federal government is serious about funding such prevention work.