I just returned from a field expedition to the Camp Fire in Paradise, California where we were collecting observations to gain a better view of how downslope wind events off of the Sierra Crest affect fire spread and behavior. Needless to say, it was a busy few days, and an overall intense experience from the center of small town America that was just torn to pieces by one of the worst fires in California’s history (aka the prefix for any contemporary California wildfire you can name…). I’d like to share some anecdotes from the fire and to shed a bit of light on our responsibilities as wildland fire researchers.
Our trip started with news from the lab director, Dr. Craig Clements, that a small (California small, ~1000 acres) brush fire had started north east of the town of Paradise, CA in Butte County and we were deploying our mobile weather station to collect data on the fire line. Matthew and I packed our bags and went to the university to prepare the truck, Craig had already arrived, giving us the usual grief for not being there sooner. We packed and departed within thirty minutes, marking about an hour since we got the news of the fire. With the Doppler LiDAR mounted and tested and redbags (think wildland firefighter suitcases) sorted, we turned east on San Salvador Street in San Jose and merged onto the northbound freeway. Along our two-and-a-half hour route to the fire, the acreage grew and grew, 1000 acres turned into 4000, 4000 turned into 7000, and raced past 8000 as we crossed the road block to get to the flank of the burn. At that point smoke had already traveled well over 70 miles through the central valley, giving everything an orange autumn haze.
We arrived to see dozens of CalFire engines and bulldozers scrambling to work cutting line and laying hoses trying to protect the residents on the south outskirts of town. We set up shop, Matthew and I got out of the truck and started the generator, the LiDAR head woke and tested its rotation, not unlike seeing someone wake and stretch in bed. We booted the instrument and checked to make sure it was running correctly to begin collecting data from the smoke plume towering overhead. It rained ash on us, a warm breeze blew from the direction of the flames. Nearby houses nestled in the thick knotted and dried scrub oaks were covered in charred leaves and soot.
“This is a bad situation;” Matthew pointed off in the distance at families carrying their belongings to their cars as the fire marched down the road.
CalFire Hueys raced overhead, flying just over the dense underbrush with their buckets to refill and return to the head fire to lay water on the flames. We worked quickly and diligently at our jobs, Matthew and I tended to the LiDAR, Craig spoke with media about our work. What felt like 20 minutes crept by and darkness began to fall, first everything went orange, then the glow from the fire began to out perform the sun. The ground lit upwards illuminating the smoke column from autumn to black. Stars began to show gently from beyond the black against the clear bluish horizon to the south. “We heard it’s at 10,000,” a news anchor shared with us, it was moving fast.
We waited, watching the LiDAR do its work, collecting the motion tendency of the air above our heads until the smoke stopped about 3000 feet above. “Wow, there’s our jet!” Craig pointed to the laptop in the truck cab showing 40 mph winds about 100 meters above us, with them decreasing above that layer. “That’s why we’re here,” he spoke again looking back up to see the fire’s progress. These winds were flowing down the Sierras and filling the canyons around us with flames 100 feet long and 70 tall, these winds were the big bad wolf that blew Paradise to the ground.
The fire came to meet us eventually, dancing about 50 meters off, then 30, then 10, it was time to go. We left the LiDAR running as we all leaped into the vehicle, spindrifts of red hot embers danced in the road as we shut our doors and peeled onto the narrow mountain road.
“Wow, that was pretty close…” I choked out after coughing in the dense smoke. “Yeah, it was fine,” Craig said calmly, clearly unshaken by the soaring flames.
We found a new location about a half mile south of our initial location, we continued scanning the sky above. The low level jet remained, it pushed the flames west, racing down into the valley. I’m sure the small darkened towns below shook in fear, we’re only an hour’s drive from what remains of western Redding, destroyed only three months ago by the Carr Fire. Our contacts from PBS met us at our new location, we briefed them on what we had seen, and what to expect from being so close to the blaze. They didn’t seem to be phased by the situation much at all. The LiDAR ran, we continued observing the jet, noting that it would fluctuate in speed but not in direction as the night progressed. The fire burned down the road as more engine teams arrived. The sound of chainsaws over the ridge was soothing, it seemed to follow the pulsing roar of the flames in the distance. We stood working nearly along side these men and women trying their hardest to save what remained of the doomed town.
Looking up the road, there was still a brave news crew, standing silhouetted against the burning forests, though eventually they departed too. Finally only we remained, nearly silent on the mountain with the sound of the hand crews across the spine of the ridge removing fuels from the fire’s path. “Hey, keep a look out, we don’t want this thing to creep up on us,” Craig directed Matt and I to protect the truck and our crew from the erratic fire. Flames engulfed the home at the end of the driveway we were parked near. We continued collecting data from the winds just above. “We’re at 15,000 acres,” someone added.
“Hey, I think we should think about going soon.” The glow swiftly intensified from behind the trees as I turned, interrupting Craig answering a question from the news.
The flames jumped to the summit of the hill across the road from us, looking down on us from the crowns of the trees. “Get in.” Craig told Miles, host of the crew from PBS, “What?” he replied, facing away from the crowning inferno, “GET IN.” Craig said firmly. He jumped into the back of the already full research truck. I yelled at the other two crew members, “Get in your car now! We’re leaving.” Embers rained down on the road, landing all around our vehicles. They hurriedly packed up and got in their car, we sped off again away from the flames, stopping again about a half mile down the road.
Engines filled a small housing plot with their crews standing beyond spraying down houses with water as the flames licked their rear porches. Miles aimed his small camera out the window of our truck to watch the flames devour another family’s “everything.” His crew left the vehicle in the middle of the road, I opened my door, “Get your car off the road right now, there are engines coming through here!” The camera man, who was driving, quickly jumped back in the car and moved onto the margin.
“What’s the plan?” Matt asked, “Let’s go to the more northern flank. The flames are ripping across the grass over there,” Craig wanted the LiDAR under that.
We sped down Pentz Road, passing empty fire engines and intrigued looking firefighters. Flames lit the road from the north, stars lit the valley to the south.
We turned on Durham-Pentz Road as the flames shined as a stark line across the moonlit golden hills to our right side, we drove along the abandoned paddocks, still golden, not for much longer. We stopped to regroup at a lonely intersection with the flames glowing from almost all sides. “Do you think we’ll make it through?” “let’s see.” There’s a lot of that in our work, fires move rapidly, and it’s not our job to be in their path.
“Can we scan from here?” “let’s see.” “Is that burning over the road?” “let’s see.”
A CalFire pick-up truck stopped and the driver’s window rolled down, it was a battalion chief, or BC.
“Where are you going?”
“We’re operating a mobile weather station and trying to find a good location to collect data.”
“Were you assigned?”
“You have to go to ICP.”
Short and to the point, we had a plan, go to ICP. “ICP?” Miles asked, “Incident Command Post,” one of us answered. We pulled up to the other vehicle’s window, “Follow us.” We flew through the dark fields, firefighters were burning out each of the paddocks to remove fuels as the fire raced down the canyons into the valley. “Can we stop? This would be great footage.” “Uh, no.” Craig continued driving as the flames towered along the road on one side with gold grasses on the other. Eventually everything we passed was black or smoldering from the burnout operations, the hills above had a red-gold line marking the persistent flames’ advance. We finally passed the entrance of Butte College, the temporary ICP.
We arrived to find only a handful of engines and some sheriffs and BCs gathered around a mobile radio station in the back of a pick up truck. A stark contrast to the overflowing fairgrounds in Anderson at the Carr Fire ICP.
We spoke with some of the firefighters coming off of their shifts to a quickly shrinking control line, it would be burned over before the sun rose again. “300 foot flames out of the back of the Ace Hardware.” “It ripped through town faster than we could lay down hoses.” More and more of the same stories, all speaking to the unfathomable destruction to the town of Paradise that happened just hours earlier. The fire had reached well over 25,000 acres at that point, it was no more than 400 yards up the hill when we arrived at camp, that shrank to 200 by the time around 8:45 that the PBS crew left us.
The truck idled as we waited for another hour or so collecting more data, eventually collecting all the data we could, which called our shift over for the night. Craig pulled us out to HWY 99, merging into the empty southbound lanes as the fire attempted to cross the highway in our rear view mirrors. We pulled over the mesas until the lights of Oroville peaked above the last hill, we hadn’t seen a town in ten hours, we needed food and gas and somewhere to sleep. Our first choice was the Cornucopia Restaurant just off the highway, they were 24 hours, it was 10:30 at that point. “I’m sorry we’re closed.” “What? I thought you were open all night.” “Thermolitos was just evacuated, our owners want us to close, try Denny’s.”
Thermolitos was close, the fire was still far away, but the people were scared. We were exhausted and didn’t argue, we continued driving through the empty town. Craig pulled the truck up to the Denny’s and we refueled on bacon and eggs and hash browns.
The townspeople started asking us about the fire, we had our yellows on. We smelled like burning homes. none of us noticed the smell, but the first of the questions came from a woman who smelled us from across the room.
“So whats really going on?” She asked. “It’s bad, we heard that all of Paradise was burned over.” “Yep, my sister-in-law barely got out.” We heard countless stories of the same, everything was lost, some didn’t make it out.
Our trip was so spontaneous that there was no hope of a comfortable place to stay that evening so we camped by the truck in the parking lot of the restaurant. Dawn brought a view of the enormous smoke plume towering over Northern California showing the location of where Paradise was. It grew by the second.
We drove back towards the highway, stopping at a coffee shop for breakfast. “Does anyone know where the Red Cross Shelter is?” A woman was weeping asking the people in line for their coffee. There was no cellular service, no way to find where she should go. It continued, “I never thought it would just come straight through town.” “I have nothing, we had no insurance.” Some found calm in knowing that this horror would come some day, they were prepared, they stood consoling those who weren’t.
As we departed the coffee shop, we drove in silence, these were peoples lives lost in the smoke. Nothing was left, only ash. We turned again onto HWY 70 under the high ceiling of smoke drifting westward. This had become more personal to see, we had met many of the victims by then; there was no place to start explaining our science to their weeping eyes. We parked on a bluff to observe the fire from a safe distance, a welcome advance after the day prior. Eventually, again, we had the data we needed from our weather station, but unfortunately our LiDAR malfunctioned. Upon the realization that there was no fixing it in the field, we packed our vehicle up and pulled it onto the vacant highway once again. It had only burned 80,000 acres at that point.
We departed Oroville and the Camp Fire like turning off a switch. This is our lives, but we decide when we’re done. Many can not, many have nothing now. With these wildfires, new life grows and flourishes, though here and with Redding and Malibu, so much has been destroyed and these places and their communities may never recover. I don’t know that Paradise will, but I certainly hope it does.
If you can, make donations to https://www.nvcf.org/ to support those affected by the Camp Fire and pay close attention to evacuation orders in your area.