Get ready for disaster.
You name it.
“Every year, we strive to educate our communities from one end of the community to the other,” said Navajo County Public Health Director Janelle Linn. “This year hits home — we’ve had multiple disasters, including the pandemic and wildfires.”
And with a fresh surge of COVID cases in a poorly vaccinated community, not to mention the possibility of renewed flooding on fresh burn scars — we could be in for it.
“Going into fall and the upcoming winter, we could see a whole trifecta of disasters,” said Linn, whose department includes the county’s emergency management agency. “This morning, we got news that our July floods were approved for a federal disaster declaration — in addition to a state declaration. This is important for our homeowners and our communities at large.”
So the Navajo County Board of Supervisors dutifully declared September Disaster Preparedness Months.
Granted, September’s darn near over. But the county’s never been big preparing for disasters early on.
The county has yet to adopt a Firewise ordinance to require forested communities to keep brush and trees trimmed to prevent the kind of ember storm holocaust that consumed Paradise California, killing 85 residents as they fled the flames on roads blocked by topping, burning trees. One recent study found that both Show Low and Pinetop-Lakeside face a much greater fire danger than Paradise did before its destruction.
Moreover, the county has yet to consider a building code that would fire-harden new buildings. Flagstaff and Prescott have both adopted comprehensive fire adapted building codes. Such codes focus on building materials, roof lines, overhanging eves, porches and other design features that can reduce the odds that an ember storm from a distant wildfire will set several homes on fire all at once. Studies show that flames from one house can easily spread from house to house to consume an entire block — especially if the fire department’s trying to handle several fires at once.
Studies also show those fire-adapted building codes don’t add much to the construction of new homes, although it can prove costly trying to retrofit an existing home. That’s why most such codes apply only to new buildings.
The Board of Supervisors did adopt the resolution urging everyone else to prepare for disaster.
The proclamation said, “preparing for disasters is protecting everyone you love, which applies to all citizens throughout our county.” The resolution called “on each and every one to be prepared in advance of any unexpected disaster that might strike.”
The proclamation urged residents to “follow the three principals of READY, SET, GO! Maintain awareness of significant danger and evacuate immediately when danger is imminent and life-threatening.”
However, a practiced evacuation plan didn’t save Paradise. The ember storm set the town on fire when the flaming front was still miles away, before officials could activate the evacuation plan. Moreover, fires started by the ember storm blocked evacuation routes, according to a meticulous analysis of what went wrong by the National Institutes of Standards and Technology.
Unfortunately, the community had not adopted a Firewise brush cleaning code or a fire-hardened building code, so the spot fires started by the embers quickly overwhelmed firefighters and residents.
The Camp Fire ultimately consumed 18,000 structures and 150,00 acres of drought-stricken forest, inflicting $1.7 billion in losses. The cleanup cost another $3 billion. The 2018 fire was driven through bone dry forests by 50 mile an hour winds, according to the reconstruction of events in the 421-page report. The White Mountains faced similar conditions this summer, before the onset of a blessedly wet monsoon ended the harrowing wildfire season.
The Forest Service is now spending $2-4 billion each year battling wildfires, but the losses keep growing. The Camp Fire drew in 5,600 firefighters, 900 pieces of equipment and a small air force. But they still couldn’t save Paradise, Magalia and Concow — older communities without a WUI building code or consistently enforced Firewise regulations. The communities were surrounded by a thick forest that hadn’t burned in decades or had been thinned to slow the spread of the flames or create a fire break between the towns and the forest. Fragmented thinning projects did protect critical infrastructure, but weren’t extensive enough to save the community in the face of the extreme conditions.
Firefighters emphasized that most of the fires in town were set by embers, which ignited hundreds of homes, parked vehicles, furniture on porches, wooden fences attached to houses, open porches, unscreened attic ventilation openings, bushes against the sides of houses, piles of pine needles on roofs and other hazards. Whole blocks burned as the fire spread house to house, even though the flaming front left trees on the other side of the street intact.
Paradise and Butte County had been talking about fire hazards for years, said the report. They adopted several programs to encourage people to Firewise their homes, adopted an ordinance to allow people to remove larger vegetation without a permit and undertook fuel treatments around schools, the irrigation district and other critical infrastructure — which for the most part worked to protect those sites.
The county and town also instituted a reverse 911 system to automatically call people with emergency alerts, outfitted streetlights with battery backups, kept streets swept of flammable debris, planned and practiced evacuation procedures and took other steps to prepare for the unthinkable.
But they never adopted a fire-hardened building code or required brush clearing. They also did not prepare an evacuation center that would allow trapped residents to safely shelter in place.
The Timeline of Tragedy:
Nov. 8: 6:25-10 a.m.
6:25: First report of a fire on the west side of the Feather River.
7:00: Fire escapes canyon.
7:23: Embers set homes on fire in Concow, three miles from fire start.
7:44: Embers start spot fires in Paradise, 7 miles from fire start.
8:30: At least 30 spot fires burning in Paradise, as much as 2 miles inside town limits.
8:45: Embers had started two separate fires 2 miles and 4 miles from the fire front.
10:00: Fires burning on both sides of several evacuation routes, trapping residents in their cars with the wind “blowing like a blow torch.”
11:00: Flames sometimes 150-feet long continued to block evacuation routes unpredictably, catching more evacuees in fatal burnovers.
12:00: Fire entrenched in canyons on all sides of town forcing firefighters trying to reach trapped people to retreat on many fronts.
3 p.m.: Fires burning throughout town and in the downtown area. On ridgetops, winds created 100 to 200-foot flame lengths. In canyons, flames 10-feet long. Embers and flames threatening many homes.
5 p.m. Flaming front reaches Concow, with 50-100-foot flame lengths. In Paradise many homes burning, trees have fallen across many evacuation routes.
Nightime, Nov. 8: Fire behavior moderates, but continues to claim structures.
Nov 9: Midnight to 8 a.m.
2 a.m. Winds picked up to 50mph, blowing softball-sized embers into new areas.
2-6:44 a.m.: Fire consuming hundreds of structures in Magalia and Concow. Retreating firefighters have to drive through flames to reach safety zones.