During Labor Day weekend of 2011, three separate fires merged into one to form the Bastrop County Complex Fire approximately 35 miles east of Austin, TX. Over the course of five long weeks, it consumed over 34,000 acres, destroyed almost 1,700 homes and 28 businesses, and took the lives of two people. By the time it was declared contained on October 10, it had earned the infamous distinction of being the worst wildfire in Texas history.
However, California’s Camp Fire and its Texas counterpart share more similarities than being the worst wildfires in their respective states. In the spirit of discussing these similarities and benefiting from lessons learned, Paradise Town Manager Lauren Gill hosted Clara Beckett, County Commissioner for Bastrop County, Texas at the launch of the town’s much-anticipated long-term recovery plan held at the Paradise Lutheran Church last Thursday.
Although the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM) is a rough equivalent to the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) in their respective roles in disaster response, Ms. Beckett feels that in Texas the initial phases of emergency response and management falls largely into the lap of individual County Commissioners and that “local governments are on their own.” These comments were made in light of the fact that it was on Clara Beckett’s watch that the Bastrop County Complex Fire took its five-week long toll making it the worst wildfire in Texas history, and making her an invaluable resource in sharing the details of her county’s recovery over the past 7 years.
Last Thursday, the Texas County Commissioner addressed a gathering of town, state and federal stakeholders that included members of the newly formed State initiative dedicated to the long-term recovery of the communities most adversely affected by last November’s Camp Fire as well as other comparable disasters going forward. The initiative comprises six distinct Recovery Support Functions (RSF’s), Housing, Health & Social Services, Economic Recovery, Infrastructure Systems, Natural & Cultural Resources and Community Planning & Capacity Building. By bringing together the recovery capabilities of various State and Federal agencies, private sector partners, non-governmental organizations and key stakeholders, the plan is to leverage their collective resources to bring about the fullest recovery possible within the scope of each RSF as envisioned by the affected communities. Prior to this gathering, the Town of Paradise approved the overall Recovery Plan put together by this State sponsored program along with a list of proposed recovery projects. The Town Council will meet again on July 23 to set specific priorities, thereby providing better direction to the State as this enormous project moves forward.
Although there were differing degrees of devastation between the California and Texas wildfires, with Butte County suffering significantly greater loses than Bastrop County, both were the worst in their states’ histories and many of the circumstances surrounding them are very similar. Both occurred after extended droughts and during generally higher temperatures. In addition, both locations were experiencing unusually high winds. In Bastrop County’s case, wind conditions were exacerbated by a growing tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico. The Camp Fire was fueled by the strong east winds that frequently spill over the Sierra Nevada Mountains that further dried the vegetation before eventually fanning and driving the resulting flames. Perhaps, the most striking similarity is that the determined cause of both wildfires was the deadly combination of electrical power lines and extremely dry vegetation.
One of the key lessons to be taken from Bastrop County’s recovery that was stressed strongly by Clara Beckett, and is directly related to Paradise’s next major hurdle, involves the extreme hazard posed by standing burned trees and the need to remove them in a timely manner. According to Beckett, “getting out and getting those chain saws going is critical.” One of her greatest concerns was for “the survivors who were putting themselves in harm’s way by having to continue to drive through neighborhoods with hazardous trees.” Bastrop County had approximately 200,000 trees whose removal was essential. The local utility company aggressively removed the first 100,000 in order to restore their infrastructure. As for the remaining 100,000 trees, Beckett explained that they were reimbursed for the cost of removal by a combination of funds from FEMA and lobbying the state legislature. The complete process took 2 ½ years.
Another similarity, despite the total number of trees affected, is the predominant type of tree in each location. The trees populating the area affected in the Bastrop County Complex Fire were almost exclusively a type of softwood pine that poses a significant hazard after being burned. In Paradise, keeping in mind that there was a much greater number of trees affected, approximately 800,000 at last count, and comprised a greater variety of tree species including some considered less dangerous after being burned; the largest portion of those trees are Ponderosa Pines, another type of softwood pine similar to those deemed extremely hazardous in Bastrop County.
When asked for her thoughts about the progress made so far toward Paradise’s recovery, Beckett was quick to note that although progress may seem to be moving very slowly, through her eyes it’s moving very quickly. “If [she] hadn’t seen it for herself, [she] wouldn’t have believed it.” At this point in the overall recovery process, she estimates that Paradise is a year ahead of where she had been at this point in Bastrop. Encouraged by comments such as these, Grace Koch, Chief Deputy Director at Cal OES, recalled how heartbroken she was when she visited Paradise last November and how amazed she is now by the progress made through the partnerships of many of the organizations represented in the room. Robert Troy, Federal Disaster Recovery Coordinator for FEMA, reiterated Koch’s sentiments by emphasizing the incredibly strong relationship between FEMA and Cal OES that is strengthened further through both organizations’ weekly engagements with local partners. To provide another glimmer of hope, Troy cleverly pointed to the re-building of Chicago in the wake of its great fire, which resulted in it now being one of the best-planned cities in the United States.
Perhaps the most encouraging takeaway from this meeting is that the State does not intend that its role in recovery come to a stop when the last parcel of land is cleared of debris. California’s commitment to Paradise’s long-term recovery and to the support of its resilient community of survivors is resolute and defined by a bright vision of Paradise’s future.