In the early morning of November 8th, 2018, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history ignited in Northern California. Named after its point of origin along Camp Creek Road, the Camp Fire spread quickly as the winds tossed hot embers into the brush as it made a swift run southwest towards the towns of Magalia and Paradise in Butte County. The destruction was unprecedented with more than 18,000 structures destroyed, and 153,336 acres charred, most of which occurred in the first four hours of the wildfire. Although over a thousand firefighters worked tirelessly to try to gain control of the fire, strong winds, low-humidity, and high fuel loads prevented it from being contained for seventeen days. What remained of the communities was an occasional chimney protruding out of a moonscape of ash and mangled debris where homes and businesses once stood.
On November 13th, 2018, a Disaster Declaration was signed which made federal funding available not only for individuals, but for state, tribal and local governments to assist in the recovery process. As the ash settled, the State of California formed dedicated task forces made up of representatives from various state, federal and local agencies focused on housing, water, and debris removal in order to assess the challenges that faced the communities. It was quickly determined that the debris removal was going to be the largest hurdle on the road to recovery with an estimated millions of tons of debris needing to be removed before rebuilding could begin. However, there were more immediate needs of the communities that the Housing and Water Task Forces needed to initially address.
The Camp Fire left 27,000 displaced residents looking for temporary and short-term housing. The California Governor’s Office of Emergency Service (Cal OES) partnered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to determine how and where to provide longer-term housing solutions for the thousands left homeless. With survivors broadly disbursed throughout Northern California in hotels, apartments, houses and staying with family and friends, the Housing Task Force targeted the surrounding cities of Chico, Oroville and other nearby communities as potential options to lease commercial housing and begin building temporary group housing sites. Zoning, permitting and the distance from the burn scar were all factors that needed to be considered in order to accommodate the needs of the survivors. FEMA, in coordination with Cal OES, was able to house over 350 residents in commercial mobile home parks, with the potential for another 500+ families to be housed in the group sites being developed.
With the extensive destruction to homes and infrastructure, another major concern was the status of potable drinking water available to the community, specifically standing structures that were not destroyed by the fire. Within Paradise Irrigation District’s (PID) intricate 173-mile water system network, it was determined that at least some of the water was contaminated with benzene and other volatile organic chemicals and large-scale testing was required. Cal OES established the Water Task Force to provide support to PID on critical activities aimed at assisting them in prioritizing and executing its recovery work. The State also provided PID technical and grant specialists to assist in maximizing its eligibility for FEMA funding. Cal OES developed and coordinated a door-to-door survey conducted by Team Rubicon that identified over 1,100 standing homes in need of clean drinking water in Paradise. This finding resulted in the detection, isolation and repairs to contain the contaminants, as well as begin the replacement of damaged service lines and water mains. To date, PID has certified that 85%, or 146.9 miles, of their water mains are free of contamination. Another major benefit from this survey was that an updated population count would make the community eligible for thirty-five United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development Program funds, totaling over $500 million. The survey was also used to identify the unmet needs of the vulnerable populations within the communities which allowed for State agencies to provide assistance where necessary.
In order to address the structural debris and hazardous waste that remained on parcels, Cal OES tasked the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) to coordinate and facilitate the unprecedented structural debris removal process. The State Consolidated Debris Removal Program had almost 11,000 properties that enrolled and needed to be cleared of hazardous waste, metals, and dangerous debris. One concern of the program was the potential waste impact not only within Paradise, Magalia and Concow, but also in surrounding communities. The program sought to divert specific kinds of waste and to repurpose as much of the debris as possible to keep it out of California’s landfills. To date, over 700 thousand tons of concrete has been collected for recycling and will be repurposed as base rock for state, local, and private road construction projects, much of it in the area around Butte, Yuba, and Sutter counties. 52 thousand tons of metal retrieved will be sorted and shipped to smelters or other recycling facilities to be processed for reuse. This extraordinary project has hauled over 305,000 loads of debris, with a total of 28.2 million road miles. This amounted to over 3.66 million tons of debris being cleared in approximately nine months’ time, which is the equivalent of four Golden Gate Bridges or 36 modern cruise ships.
In a typical debris removal operation for fires within the State of California, the California Environmental Protection Agency (Cal EPA) develops a community air monitoring and sampling plan. Monitors are set up so that the community can have some security that the dust mitigation and safety measures put in place for debris removal are working well. These samplers and monitors run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and test for a suite of metals including cadmium, chromium, lead, zinc, vanadium, and thallium. Due to the scope of debris from the Camp Fire, Cal EPA used more stringent standards and ten times the equipment than normally used after a wildfire to ensure air quality remained at healthy levels for not only the communities affected, but also for the workers removing debris. The resulting air monitoring operation was extremely successful. According to Dr. Shelley DuTeaux, Toxicologist and Environmental Program Manager for Cal EPA, “The agency has not detected any excess particulate matter or dust in the air that has directly to do with the debris removal operations. We have detected a few days or hours where we’ve noticed high readings or spikes, but those have been traced back to an open burn permit that a resident or business obtained for brush or slash clearing.”
Cal OES recently stood up a new directorate specifically focused on Recovery following a State disaster or large emergency. The newly formed Recovery Operations directorate will provide continuous long-term recovery support and coordination to local communities and agencies affected by a disaster or large emergency. This function has always been part of the operational support Cal OES provides following a disaster, however the new directorate provides more opportunities for long-term assistance, avenues of support and functionality to assist those directly affected by large-scale incidents in California. As a result of the Camp Fire, Cal OES established the Interagency Recovery Coordination (IRC) Team to provide guidance to the first-in-the-nation State Recovery Support Functions (RSFs) supporting intermediate and long-term recovery needs of impacted communities. There are six RSFs with different emphases: Community Planning and Capacity; Economic; Health and Social Services; Housing; Infrastructure; and Natural and Cultural Resources. The RSFs bring together the core recovery capabilities of various State departments and agencies as well as other supporting organizations to focus on post-disaster recovery and resiliency needs. One of the key tasks of the RSFs is to identify potential funding through multiple public and private sector sources, such as loans, grants, and other mechanisms which can be used to fund special projects, provide resources, technical assistance, and assist the community in their recovery. For example, the RSFs coordinated Trauma Recovery Training sessions for first responders, public health staff, schools, crisis counselors, and public officials in Butte County to learn how to best tend to the needs of a community that has experienced trauma during an emergency. Another achievement for the RSFs was the facilitation of providing a Civic Spark Volunteer for the Children & Youth Task Force to address the recovery needs of the children of Butte County. To date, over 130 projects are being facilitated through the RSFs with various California state agencies providing assistance and guidance, with many more on the horizon.
Although the Camp Fire recovery efforts have had many successes, there are still hurdles to overcome, including the removal of hundreds of thousands of fire-damaged, hazardous trees. However, the resiliency of the communities of Paradise, Magalia, Concow, and surrounding areas, endures as they face each new challenge and all that lies ahead. The State of California is committed to remain by their side to provide support, resources and technical expertise as necessary to “Make it Paradise” again.