I’ve been to Paradise.
Granted, it’s been 30 years since my last visit that consisted of bicycling up from Oroville past Table Mountain via Pentz Road and taking the exhilarating descent down the Skyway into Chico some 1,700 feet below.
My first visit was when my sister was a sophomore at Chico State and she insisted that we go to this “killer” restaurant. The drive there on the Skyway is reminiscent of Highway 120/108 as you start climbing past the Knights Ferry’ turnoff to where the highways split with one heading toward Sonora and the other to Yosemite.
The town itself — Paradise is one of 22 of California’s 478 incorporated municipalities that purposely eschewed the “city” moniker — doesn’t have the feel of a city per se.
Nature and how Paradise developed saw to that. The homes of its 27,000 residents are spread over 18.33 square miles. That’s virtually the same size of Manteca with a third of the population. Its hilly terrain, scrub oaks, and pines remind you of Mi-Wuk Village along Highway 108.
Images of those areas will help you understand why someone would want to live in Paradise. It may also help you realize much of California is just one spark away from another Camp Fire that has destroyed 8,756 homes and claimed the lives of 56 so far with at least 130 missing.
Against this background in the past few days we’ve had the climate change evangelists and the forest management demagogues spout off how the fact the Golden State is being scarred with wide swaths of burn marks is proof positive that their view of the world is right.
Here’s the problem. There is some truth in both positions. Climate change — it used to be called weather shifts before the cottage industry of science was hijacked to justify a massive political movement that opportunists are cashing in on to hawk their wares — is indeed happening. But to act as if man is in the driver’s seat is arrogant.
And yes, “forest management” — as if man can really manage anything nature offers — is tripped up by regulatory red-tape, conflicting interests, and such that often stymies what would be best for fire reduction.
But the real culprit whether it is in the wind-swept coastal canyons of the Los Angeles Basin or idyllic communities in the foothills and mountains of the north state is how California has developed.
Massive fires are nothing new to the area of geography that we have dubbed as California. History books tell of the early 1800s when the skies above the Great Central Valley would be choked for weeks and often months with smoke from wildfires that burned until they ran out of fuel created when the green of winter and early spring turned golden often before May 1. Then as the days heat up and what is dry becomes devoid of all moisture the stage is set for the great fires of fall fanned by the Santa Ana Winds, the Diablo Winds, and whatever name other dry, unrelenting blasts of 35 mph plus sustained wind storms are given.
Any firefighter worth his salt will tell you paradise can kill you or at least make your sliver of the American Dream end up as kindling in a roaring wildfire.
Fire clear zones around homes in wooded areas or in steep brush and grass lines canyons are solid ideas in a low-key fire situation but when a blaze gets momentum all bets are off. That’s because even if you had a 50-foot wide “green” area with lawn devoid of any fuel such as dry weeds, shrubs, and debris most of us who find our dream homes in canyons, the hills, or the mountains do so in part because of the abundance of trees — oaks, pines, and otherwise. We build homes under the canopies of trees that unlike most of the ones we plant in our cities that are not native to California are natural to this state which means nature has preprogrammed them to weather the weather cycles. There are reasons why scrub oaks and their bigger cousins feel brittle to the touch. They have the DNA to survive the California weather cycle.
And if we don’t build homes under such canopies there are plenty of scrub oaks and pines nearby that can explode into flames quicker than a tinder dry Christmas tree in your living room on Super Bowl Sunday.
It also doesn’t help that there are more of us. In 1956 when I was born, I became one of 15 million Californians. Sometime in the coming 10 months or so we are expected to top 40 million.
Not only are there more homes to protect but there are more homes being built in places no one thought possible in 1956 mainly because of proximity to jobs or the ability to financially afford to retire to paradise.
It has forced firefighters to change how they fight fires in the wild. One popular way of reducing fire fuel on the valley floor or even in the tinder dry foothills was to have controlled burns doubling as practice fires on summer days when there was no winds and high humidity. That strategy went out the door when air quality was finally addressed.
We need to be honest. The only way to prevent another Camp Fire is to literally abandon all of our man-built paradise communities across the state. That, however, isn’t going to happen. The best we can do is be a smart as possible in reducing fire risk while keeping in mind what you love can kill you.