Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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An unusual happy ending in Paradise

So, the fire. That was pretty horrifying.

It seems as though there’s not much room to cast blame around, though I understand why a lot of people feel blame ought to go somewhere.

Apparently cell service was very, very poor in the town, so a lot of residents didn’t have cell phones or didn’t get the warnings; also the warning system in place, which did call landlines as well as cells, could not make 10,000 calls per minute. That would have been nice, but no. I don’t hear my landline phone if it rings at night; it’s upstairs. I turn my cell on airplane at night to conserve the battery; reception is so terrible that the charge runs down super fast if I leave my phone on. I completely understand why a lot of the residents did not get the warnings.

The fire started early in the morning and reached the town at an hour that was still early-ish, and then the evacuation plan that might have worked for a fire moving at a rate of one football field per minute wasn’t adequate for a fire moving at a rate of one football field per second, which is one estimate I’ve seen. Hard to imagine how incredibly fast this fire was moving as it approached the town.

And finally, Paradise was built in a place where all the roads were constrained by geographical features: no way to put in anything wide. Gridlock was inevitable, probably.

It’s probably true that aggressively cleaning out the underbrush would have helped. Or staging small fires at safe intervals, but that’s trickier than some proposals make it seem, because if there’s a drought for several years, then there’s no safe time for a burn. A buddy system would have been nice. Not error-proof by any means, but very useful for those who didn’t have good phone contact, probably.

So, honestly, although things could probably have been handled better, especially if authorities had had a time machine so they knew how fast that fire would move, it looks like most likely things couldn’t have been handled much better, given the way events unfolded. Here’s an article about this. 

It was just a terrible place for a town. You could say that about a lot of towns after the fire or earthquake or hurricane hits, of course.

Here’s a good video. I admire the calm of the father who’s driving his sons out of the inferno. If you watch long enough, you’ll see the darkness give way to daylight as the car emerges from the smoke. It’s impossible to believe this video was shot during the daytime until that happens.

And here is the orchard that survived the end of Paradise:

“So,” I asked, “Is it all gone? Is the green stone house gone?”

“It’s all gone,” Mr. Noble said. “All except the trees. The orchard survived.”

“What? How’s that possible?”

“My trees were still all green and full of leaves and fruit. There was a fire break I put in years ago and have been improving. When the fire got to our place there was no easy food to be had from my apple trees. They were too moist and out of reach. The fire went around them. My trees are still there. The orchard made it.”

That makes me unreasonably happy. I’m glad something survived in Paradise. If no one wants to build a town there again — which would be very reasonable — maybe the whole area could be turned into orchards.

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7 Comments An unusual happy ending in Paradise

  1. Evelyn M. Hill

    Paradise had a bad fire about ten years ago. I remember my brother telling me about sitting out on his patio watching the fire creep up the canyon. (That fire crept. This one leapt.)

    After that, the city authorities really did try to put together an evacuation plan. But given the logistics of the terrain and the roads, there’s no way to ensure everyone could get out. This was an area where a lot of people settled because it was not an expensive place to live. (A rarity in California.) So a lot of retirees, people who couldn’t drive, etc. Because it was a fairly small community, a lot of people relied on neighbors, friends, even total strangers to help them get out.

    Thankfully, my sister-in-law and my niece got out, with their cat and their cars. It took several hours to the next town on a route that usually would take me twenty minutes. But my SIL decided to leave before they were officially told to go.

  2. Elaine T

    Well, we have been mismanaging the forests for decades, but from what I’ve been reading by people who have lived there, there was no way everyone could have escaped. The geography doesn’t support the size roads needed for quick escape.

    The one thing that might have helped would be a siren loud enough to wake everyone. But even then, so many weren’t all that mobile.

    Anthony Watts at Watts Up With That and Gerald Vanderleun at American Digest live(d) there and have been posting interesting stuff.
    And Cliff Mass’s weather & climate blog had a detailed analysis of how & why the fire started where it did and went so fast. Basically a wind tunnel effect at the canyon point where the power line failed.

    I’ve only driven by the turn-off to Paradise, never seen it myself.

  3. Evelyn M. Hill

    A siren might have helped, especially for those who didn’t have a landline. Though a lot of people lived down isolated cul-de-sac roads without cell reception. Even in the center of Paradise, I sometimes stayed in locations where there was no cell phone availability.
    Tl;dr — Get to know your neighbors. Develop a network. Before you need them.

  4. Rachel

    Evelyn, so glad your sister-in-law and everyone got out — including the cat.

    I know people more or less try to manage the CA forests, but I have a very strong suspicion that all kinds of factors get in the way of management, hence the extremely frequent fires that are pretty bad, if not this bad. But yes, apparently Paradise was just hopeless geographically.

    The problem with a siren, it seems to me, is that first, it almost certainly wouldn’t wake everyone; and second, give how often sirens are tested, a lot of people would probably believe it was a test even when it went off for real; and third, unless you have codes everyone memorizes, a siren says “emergency!” but it doesn’t say what kind of emergency or what you should do. So the communication issue looks like it was just really hard to deal with. And then the fire moved so, so fast.

  5. Elaine T

    Evelyn, good to hear your family got out.

    Sirens aren’t great, but they are less dependent on power and connectivity than more modern forms of alert. So maybe they should be considered. Best in combination with radio or cell or other forms of more detailed alert. Siren would let people know something is up, and check other sources.

    My thoughts after reading a lot about what went wrong.

    Won’t help with the roads, though.

  6. Mike S.

    Re turning your phone to airplane mode at night: is it not possible to leave it charging so that you can receive emergency calls?

    I think both Android and iOS have Do Not Disturb settings that will filter out routine calls while allowing specified contacts and emergency calls through.

  7. Rachel

    I could leave my phone charging, Mike, but since I have no signal downstairs in the bedroom no matter what the season or weather, there’s no point.

    It’s true that I really ought to put my landline phone in the bedroom at night. That would let my mother call me if there should be a real emergency at their house.

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