According to a recent story by ProPublica, numerous government agencies in California knew about the dangers that led to the Carr wildfire in July 2018 and did little to nothing to prevent the horrific catastrophe. The Carr Fire was the third of four catastrophic wildfires that burned their way through hundreds of thousands of acres in California over 13 months beginning in October 2017. The Camp Fire, the fourth of the fires during the 13-month period, was the deadliest fire in California history claiming 86 lives. This has led many to ask what could be done to prevented Camp Fire could have been prevented.
The article, by Keith Schneider, outlines problems from underfunding certain agencies to differences in opinion between government agencies. Is the same pattern of ignoring the dangers of wildfires in California and arguing over the best ways to prevent forest fires leading to deadlier fires, such as the Camp Fire last year?
How Did the Carr Wildfire Start?
On July 23, a couple towing a recreational trailer was forced to drag the trailer to a safe place to pull over after a tire on the trailer blew out. The blowout occurred about 15 miles northwest of Redding on State Route 299. As the couple tried to reach a safe turnout, sparks flew from the tire’s steel rim. Sparks flew into the shrubs and grass on the side of the road. Three sparks ignited brush fires.
The brush fires quickly spread into the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, which is a part of the National Park Service. Once the fire jumped from the roadside to the recreation area, the fire gained in intensity and moved quickly. Despite the efforts of thousands of firefighters, the fire burned through 6,000 acres and consumed homes in French Gulch in just two days.
On July 25, the wildfire changed direction. Strong winds pushed the fire toward the town of Redding. Just 60 hours after the fire began, it had moved over 10 miles and through 20,000 acres. By July 26, the Carr Fire had burned another 20,000 acres through Shasta County.
The fire reached the Sacramento River, which runs through Redding. One witness reports seeing 30-foot tall flames that rained embers down on the brush that started new fires. By the time the fire reached the fringes of Redding, it found new fuel in the form of homes, fences, more brush, and outdoor furniture.
By the time the fire was extinguished, it had burned for 39 days consuming 229,000 acres of land and 1,100 homes. Eight people died because of the Carr Fire. Four of the people who lost their lives in the Carr Fire were first responders.
Was the Carr Fire Preventable?
The spark that ignited the brush fires on the side of State Route 299 was an unpredictable event that state officials had no way of knowing would happen. However, according to the author, interviews with various individuals and a review of public records indicate that the factors that led to the Carr Fire had been an issue of debate and worry for many years.
More than one government official or agency had predicted the potential for a fire being ignited in that area, how the fire spread, the intensity of the fire, and the toll on life and property that might occur from a fire in that area. Some individuals had worried about the potential for a catastrophic fire in this area for years. However, even though officials worried about a fire and predicted that a small brush fire could lead to the devastation caused by the Carr Fire, very little was done to prevent this tragic event.
What Factors Led to the Intensity and Uncontrolled Spread of the Carr Fire?
Several factors contributed to the spread of the brush fire and the inability to control the Carr Fire until 39 days after the fire began to spread and head towards Redding. Some of the factors raised in the article include:
• Lack of Funds
The federal park service official in charge of fire prevention throughout Whiskeytown, Tom Garcia, did not have enough funds in his budget needed to safeguard against a fire like the Carr Fire. He also did not have the staff required to manage the 39,000 acres of forest to safeguard against fire. He had worried about the scenario that led to the Carr Fire spreading from the side of the road, but he did not have the funds to perform clearing in all areas in need. Therefore, he focused on what he considered the highest risk area. This choice left the northern region where the fire began largely untouched.
• Limitations of Air Pollution Regulations
The steps that the federal park service could take to control fires, such as setting controlled fires, were limited by local and state air pollution regulations.
• City Officials Failing to Adopt Certain Regulations
Elected officials and residents of Redding chose not to enforce or adopt some development regulations that other municipalities adopted to try to keep businesses and homes safe in the event of a wildfire.
• Climate Change
Climate change may have contributed to the heat and droughts that created conditions conducive for a wildfire to spread rapidly.
• Disagreement Between Agencies Regarding Fuel Reduction and Clearing
Caltrans had proposed aggressive fire prevention efforts along the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area when it was working on State Route 299 in 2016. However, the proposal by CalTrans to clear a fire strip and remove fire fuel from the strip of federal land along State Route 299 was never approved by Whiskeytown supervisors due to numerous procedural hurdles and a desire to preserve the natural beauty of the roadside.
Even though the risks of leaving the brush and trees along the state road were clear, CalTrans could not force Whiskeytown supervisors to approve the clearing project. NOTE: Fire manager of the Whiskeytown recreation area, Tom Garcia, disputes the view that they opposed tree and brush clearing. He believes they would have approved for a thin-from-below approach instead of a clear-cut fuel treatment. As noted above, Garcia did the best that he could with the limited budget he had to clear fuels within the Whiskeytown area. Unfortunately, the Carr Fire raged through the area in which Garcia had been unable to clear.
• Anticipated Risks Not Fully Addressed
City and county officials had prepared emergency planning reports that stated wildfires were the highest public safety threat to residents within their jurisdictions. Redding is at the eastern edge of thousands of acres of woodlands. Many homes have been constructed in the area, which is classified by the county and state as a “very high fire hazard severity zone.”
Almost 40 percent of Redding falls within this high hazard severity zone. Unfortunately, the recommendations in the report were largely ignored. The author cites the reason as civic indifference to fire risk more than bureaucratic mismanagement. Citizens expressed a belief that other issues were a higher priority than fire prevention. Therefore, fire prevention rules for homeowners were treated as voluntary by fire authorities.
Is Anything Being Done to Prevent Wildfires in California?
Some things have been done to try to prevent wildfires in California. Over a hundred years ago, cities began using steel, concrete, and brick for construction material instead of wood. Even though officials had the foresight to recognize that changing building materials might help prevent some damage from wildfires, the problems faced by government officials and residents in California today are much more complicated. You cannot stop the damage caused by wildfires by simply substituting stronger builder materials for structures. Other steps must be taken to reduce the risk of wildfires.
In September 2017, California lawmakers approved a $200 million annual budget for Cal Fire (the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection) over the next five years to help the agency battle and prevent wildfires. The money will help Cal Fire perform controlled burns or “fuels reduction.” The U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Forest Service will increase their emphasis on fire prevention, including increasing their budget to include prescribed fires on 85,000 acres of land.
Redding city officials have also indicated they will re-evaluate their position and approach to controlling and managing the thousands of acres of open land within the city limits.
Unfortunately, if government agencies at all levels fail to work together to manage and prevent wildfires, the efforts being made by individual agencies and offices may not be enough to prevent another devastating wildfires in California. In addition, individual citizens must become more aware of the dangers of California wildfires. Individuals can also take steps to prevent wildfires and control the spread of wildfires by how they construct their homes and businesses. They must also be vigilant in their efforts to avoid sparking a wildfire.
Was Paradise Prepared for the Camp Fire?
According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, Paradise was not prepared for the Camp Fire because it ignored warnings and failed to take preventative measures based on those warnings. A Los Angeles Times investigation revealed several disturbing facts. A state fire planning document from 2005 warned that Paradise was at risk of an ember firestorm. Instead, Paradise officials based their belief of the risk on the fact that in 50 years no wildfire had crossed the Feather River. Paradise officials ignored repeated warnings about the risks from fire faced by the town’s residents.
However, Paradise took extensive steps to prepare for wildfires. Paradise officials advertised the town’s warning system, promoted “pack and go” preparations, and included fire precautions in public construction projects. City leaders believed that Paradise was prepared to handle a fire.
Unfortunately, the town did not have an evacuation plan that included evacuating the entire town at one time, created a public alert system that was vulnerable to fire, and failed to issue citywide orders to evacuate even though it was evident the fire was taking over the area quickly. Once people begin evacuating Paradise, the roads out of the town became gridlocked within an hour of the first evacuation order. People were unable to get out of harm’s way.
State and local officials have said that the tragedy of the Camp Fire was unavoidable and unforeseen and there was no way the Camp Fire could have been prevented through further actions. The authors argue that the destruction caused by the Camp Fire was predictable, but warnings were ignored and past lessons forgotten.
Who is Responsible for the Deaths and Damages Caused by the Camp Fire?
The Camp Fire burned 153,336 acres; destroyed 13,972 homes, 528 commercial buildings, and 4,293 other buildings; injured three firefighters; and, killed 86 civilians. Even though Cal Fire reports that the cause of the Camp Fire is still under investigation as of December 14, 2018, several lawsuits have already been filed against PG&E alleging fault for the Camp Fire. PG&E may also face charges for manslaughter, murder, or other criminal charges according to California’s attorney general.
While PG&E may ultimately be held responsible for billions of dollars in damages caused by the Camp Fire, other defendants may be identified as investigators and plaintiff’s attorneys continue to investigate the circumstances surrounding the fires. The Camp Fire attorneys of the Thompson Law Office continue to investigate matters related to the Camp Fire, including identifying parties who may be responsible for damages, injuries, and losses sustained by the Camp Fire victims.
Contact The Thompson Law Office to Discuss Your Legal Options for a Camp Fire Lawsuit
Our Camp Fire attorneys are accepting clients who have claims related to the fires in Butte County. For a free consultation with a Camp Fire lawsuit attorney, contact our office by calling 1-650-513-6111. You and your family may be entitled to substantial compensation for your losses, including personal injury claims and wrongful death claims.