PARADISE (AP) — Wildfire surrounded Darrel Wilken and the three hospital patients in his car. But instead of evacuating Paradise, they were stuck in traffic along with thousands of others.
Cars burned in front of them. Trees, homes and buildings exploded into flames as the gusting firestorm destroyed nearly everything around them.
Wilken, a nurse, knew about Paradise’s evacuation plan, which includes route maps and zones. But the speed and intensity of the fire forced him to improvise, he said.
Despite the tragic outcome of that day in November 2018 and the confusion faced by people like Wilken, the city’s careful planning made a difference, Paradise Mayor Jody Jones insists.
“I don’t know that you could ever prepare for something like what happened here. It was just so fast,” Jones said. “But we were not caught flat-footed. We did know what to do. Our people knew what to do, and it did save lives.”
Counter-intuitive as it may sound, Paradise has some of the strongest evacuation planning in California. In fact, a USA TODAY Network-California survey of communities at high risk from wildfire found only 22% (including Paradise) have a robust, publicly available evacuation plan.
The scale of disaster in the Camp Fire was unprecedented, but the scene of people fleeing wildfire was familiar, repeated numerous times over the past three years up and down California from Redding and Paradise to Santa Rosa, Ventura and Malibu.
In many of those communities, motorists became stuck in traffic as officials tried to evacuate thousands onto a few roads leading away from the flames.
The 85 deaths and nearly 19,000 buildings destroyed in Paradise’s Camp Fire made it the deadliest and most destructive blaze in California history. Eight of those who perished were found in their vehicles, with two others found outside near vehicles.
In some spots, burned-out and abandoned vehicles lined roads leading out of town.
But none of that has created a detectable sense of urgency for more evacuation planning.
Using Cal Fire’s designation of wildfire risks across the state, the USA TODAY Network-California requested evacuation plans from 27 communities at greatest risk of fire.
One group consisted of the 15 most populous communities where 95% or more of residents live in very high hazard areas for wildfires ; the other group included the 15 places with the highest sheer number of residents living in that riskiest zone. Three communities appeared on both lists.
Reporters contacted officials in each of those 27 communities, and filed document requests under the California Public Records Act with those that refused to release plans.
They found that fewer than one in four, just 22%, have a robust evacuation plan that is available to the public.
California does not require communities to plan for wildfire evacuations. And while experts recommend cities and counties develop evacuation plans, there is disagreement over what should be included in those plans.
Tom Cova is a University of Utah geography professor who has done extensive research on environmental hazards, emergency management, transportation, and geographic information science.
Cova said he doesn’t understand why communities wouldn’t do more evacuation planning.
“To me, it says, one, communities are complacent or ignorant of the risks, and two, it’s a failure on the part of local and state governments to not require them (certainly for the highest hazard communities),” Cova said in an email.
Jones, the Paradise mayor, said other communities around the state in high fire hazard areas should learn a lesson from what happened in her town.
“Have a plan, an evacuation plan,” she said. “You’re going to have tragedy if you don’t have a plan.”
But some emergency officials say fires are too unpredictable for that.
Evacuation areas depend on the fire itself and what areas or neighborhoods it is threatening, said Paul Lowenthal, assistant fire marshal and public information officer for Santa Rosa.
He acknowledged the difficulty of evacuating tens of thousands of residents during the Tubbs Fire in October 2017, when between 80,000 and 100,000 residents were evacuated and Highway 101 was clogged.
Lowenthal said evacuation plans may be helpful in communities with few roads in and out. But in communities like Santa Rosa, where there are more options, he believes they aren’t needed.
“Conditions dictate the extent and need for evacuations,” Lowenthal said.