Flames consume the town of Paradise, California. The wildfire killed 86 people. Photo: Josh Edelson / AFP / Getty Images

By Alastair Gee and Dani Anguiano
20 December 2018

PARADISE, California (The Guardian) – William Goggia awoke to a poisonous orange atmosphere so thick with smoke he couldn’t see the sun.

It was 8am on Thursday 8 November. He heard the piercing metallic clang of propane tanks exploding in the distance. His sister, who lived nearby, called to ask him to help a relative in the area, but Goggia told her that he couldn’t: chunks of burning wood were falling from the sky.

Goggia inhabited the same stucco, three-bedroom house he grew up in. Now it was time to leave. By 9am he was on the road, accompanied by his tabby cat, Mikey. But the street was so clogged with people trying to escape that Goggia barely moved. The fire was getting closer. The van was going to burn up with him and the cat inside, he thought. So he turned back around against the traffic.

Goggia didn’t know it yet, but he had been engulfed by the deadliest wildfire in recorded California history. Soon at least 86 people would be dead in a new and ferocious kind of climate change-inflected wildfire. And Paradise would suffer a fate that appears increasingly likely: the total destruction of a modern American city.

This is a reconstruction of Paradise’s final hours, based on interviews with more than 50 residents, first responders and wildfire scientists. […]

But one menace was constant. Wildfires are a normal part of the forest ecosystem in California, and over the past decade parts of Paradise have been threatened by at least four fires. More than 200 structures were destroyed in 2008.

Recent conditions have boosted the risks. Years of drought exacerbated by global warming have left its forests achingly dry and littered with dead trees. And because there has been a policy of suppressing wildfires to protect homes and businesses in the state since the early 1900s, the landscape is now unusually dense with shrubs and young trees that would otherwise have been burned off by naturally occurring blazes. Fire experts, who have long spoken out about the danger, don’t see this as vegetation – they see it as fuel. […]

Normally the wind in California blows from west to east – from the Pacific Ocean inland. But, particularly in the fall, a different pattern emerges: hot northerly air from the Nevada deserts courses over the Sierra Nevada, rushing downslope over towns like Paradise. These are winds that firefighters fear because they disperse wildfire embers like dandelion seeds flung into the breeze. In Paradise that morning, there were northerly gusts of up to 70mph. […]

Fires aren’t supposed to act like this any more. In 1906, a fire that broke out in the wake of San Francisco’s great earthquake incinerated the city. But decades of research into fire safety and changes to building codes were meant to have ameliorated large-scale structural conflagrations, said Faith Kearns, a researcher at the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. In recent years, though, things have begun to change. In 2017, some 3,000 single-family homes were destroyed in the city of Santa Rosa, and over 1,000 homes burned in summer 2018 in a fire that advanced into the city of Redding, which also saw a bizarre “fire tornado”.

The main drivers, Kearns believes, are a more extreme climate and more people living in fire-prone, semi-rural areas. “We engineered our way out of that kind of fire,” she said. “Now we’re seeing it come back.” […]

Although the main body of wildfire was massed to the east of Paradise, California, embers created spot fires elsewhere. Graphic: Deer Creek Resources / Google Earth

Eighteen years before she was a fire scientist at the University of Idaho, Crystal Kolden worked as a firefighter based in Placerville, about 85 miles south-east of Paradise.

Last month, she drove from Idaho to southern California for Thanksgiving. It was like retracing earlier parts of her life, but the memory and the reality were jarringly discordant. Over 100m trees, mostly conifers, are estimated to have died in California in a five-year period of drought in the 2010s, and Kolden was “blown away by how many dead pine trees we saw – alone, in clusters, all over the place”, she said.

greater concern, she also saw that oaks, a resilient species that dot even the driest hills in California, were suffering. “When I fought fire, we didn’t worry much about the oaks,” she said. They are more moist and can slow fire. “Now what I see is a continuous bed of 20 to 40ft-high oak and pine trees that is tinder dry and ready to burn.”

The consequences for places like Paradise are clear. “The vegetation is responding very, very obviously to climate change extremes, and setting the stage for more disasters,” Kolden said. “Paradise will not be the last town we lose.”

Craig Clements, who researches the weather associated with wildfires at San José State University, had a blunter assessment. “This whole place is going to burn down. Paradise is just one example.” [more]

Last day in Paradise: the untold story of how a fire swallowed a town

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