SALT LAKE CITY — Eighty-five people died when a fire ripped through the northern California town of Paradise almost three years ago.
What made the 2018 Camp Fire particularly deadly wasn’t that town officials didn’t have an evacuation plan in the case of a wildfire emergency, it’s that the emergency plan didn’t anticipate a fire of that magnitude tearing through the town so quickly.
As the fire season picks back up at a time when drought conditions in Utah and across the West are worsening, there are growing fears that 2021 could break fire records in the state or possibly surrounding states, too. With those concerns in play, there’s a stronger focus on the importance of evacuations should a fire reach a community.
But how adequately prepared are communities for a massive evacuation? Researchers of a recently published study, led by a professor at the University of Utah, say the story of Paradise highlights holes in evacuation plans. The research paper offered criteria that should be taken into account for evacuation plans, such as the willingness of people to evacuate based on the severity of the situation and also the infrastructure needed to speed up the process.
It’s a study partially influenced by one fire in particular.
The ‘poster child’ for dire evacuation
Direness ended up being one of the biggest components of the research paper, which was published in Natural Hazards Review in late April. That is, the researchers wanted to know: Are there some fire scenarios where evacuation is more critical than others?
Tom Cova, a professor of the University of Utah’s department of geography and the study’s lead author, told KSL.com that the research team wanted to focus more on plans that could dig deeper into what was happening in reality because they found most planning and research scenarios for major fire events were overly optimistic in that they always offered enough time for people to evacuate on time. He figured it came down to the fact that nobody wanted to put down in writing that a scenario could end in mass casualties and destruction in their simulations.
That irked him and his colleagues because the scenarios in writing were vastly different from what some communities have experienced in recent years.
The paper outlined three levels of dire based on a scale measured by evacuation time and the time available. A nearby fire is concerning but maybe not very dire if the conditions don’t call for rapid fire spread. An even closer fire during dry and windy conditions? That’s going to be significantly more dire. This is a concept that hadn’t really existed in fire preparation or research.
The 2018 Camp Fire might be the best example of what the researchers consider the direst situation. The California fire stunned the nation as images emerged of widespread destruction and a quaint mountain community essentially transformed into a moonscape in mere hours.
“It’s the poster child, I guess. It’s kind of like the iconic example,” Cova said.
It’s easy to look back now and point out what went wrong in Paradise; however, Cova explained that Paradise actually had developed one of the best fire evacuation plans in California since it had become a community under threat of possible fire over the prior two decades. Once the plan was put in place, it was estimated that the town could evacuate everyone in about three hours. But after the fire sparked in November 2018, the residents ended up with just 90 minutes to evacuate — most of which was spent with authorities waiting to see if the fire would be yet another near-miss before ordering evacuations.
Ultimately, it didn’t matter how prepared the community was. The evacuation plan just wasn’t fast enough because the fire spread faster than anyone imagined. It ended up the deadliest fire in California history and the deadliest U.S. wildfire in a century.
What caught the attention of researchers like Cova is that the Camp Fire threw off all evacuation timetables and it wasn’t just a one-time occurrence. There have been other major wildfire catastrophes between then and now that followed a similar pattern.
“If that was the one-time thing, if that was the one case, we would just sit back and be awestruck. But then it happened again,” Cova said before rattling off some of the other recent large fires across Western states and also in Australia.
Towns and cities like Paradise could do everything right and wind up with mass fatalities because they didn’t take into account new wildfire patterns. That’s especially true as communities in traditional fire areas grow but also as new communities find themselves in the heart of wildfire country.
So the team of researchers — Cova, Frank Drews, a professor in the University of Utah department of psychology, as well as experts in South Dakota and Texas — got to work looking into the Camp Fire and the other headline-grabbing fires in recent history. They peered into all the good and bad aspects of wildfire evacuation that weren’t really mentioned in evacuation scenarios to see what was missing from planning and reality.
“It’s not just one fire every 10 or 15 years now, it’s like six in the last year,” Cova added. “(We wanted) a research challenge and also a planning challenge: How do we learn lessons from what happened in Paradise and other fires and get ahead of the curve so other communities may be dealing with this?”
Surprise and other fire planning takeaways
While direness was one of the biggest takeaways, surprise was one of the more fascinating findings when diving into the issue further. The researchers found that fire experts were aware of the threat of disaster but many others were caught off guard. In some cases, residents didn’t believe a severe fire could reach them; in others, people didn’t believe a wildfire could even happen near them because there were no fire maps for their area.
That’s something that’s happened even if the argument over climate change is slowly shifting toward acceptance. Cova said community decision-makers and members of the general public were still “being caught off guard” by devastating fires.
They also found an interesting psychological belief. Due to a growing number of evacuations that ended in near misses, Drews explained that some believed they would be fine every time a new fire came close enough to prompt an evacuation.
It’s similar to the classic Aesop fable, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” That, Drews said, is a dangerous type of thinking.
“Given the reality of climate change, it’s important to critically assess where we are and say, maybe we can’t count on certain assumptions like we did in the past,” he said, in a statement.
The study also circled the importance of shelters and safety zones within communities that people could go to if it wasn’t possible to flee a community in time. In the 2018 Camp Fire, Paradise improvised on the fly by having some people go to parking lots and community buildings that weren’t threatened so they could be shielded from the fire when it was clear they couldn’t evacuate in time.
There were other items the study outlined that weren’t as gloomy. For instance, researchers found the importance of altruism in the middle of evacuations. In one case, people volunteered to help repair flat tires on vehicles trying to flee a fire in Oregon. More frequently, they found lots of people would check on their neighbors to help get them out of danger. None of those scenarios were accounted for in planning either.
“It is very common for families and neighbors to assume a first-responder role and help each other during disasters. Many times, individuals and groups come together, cooperate and improvise solutions as needed,” said Laura Siebeneck, associate professor of emergency management and disaster science at the University of North Texas and the study’s co-author, in a statement.
“Though it is difficult to capture improvisation and altruism in the modeling environment, better understanding human behavior during dire events can potentially lead to better protective actions and preparedness to dire wildfire events.”
What about Utah?
During an event last month about the problems Utah will face in the coming years, Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said it was clear Utah needed to prepare for wildfires in the future because the state’s climate just wasn’t what he remembered it as growing up. Utah has gotten hotter and drier and more prone to fires.
“As our climate continues to be very challenging, fires are becoming a much bigger and bigger concern for the state,” he said at the time.
To that point, a pair of fires in Utah County led to the state’s largest wildfire evacuation in history in 2018 just months before the Camp Fire ignited in California. Thousands were evacuated due to the Pole Creek and Bald Mountain Fires. In 2012, the Wood Hollow Fire, which led to the evacuation of Fairview, moved over four miles in one hour at one point.
That recent history also weighed heavy on Gov. Spencer Cox when he introduced the state’s newest campaign aimed at reducing the growing number of human-caused fires.
“When it moves that rapidly and conditions are that dry, it can jump from house to house to house. We’ve seen that in California, we’ve seen it Oregon and we’ve seen it in Colorado,” the governor said. “We haven’t seen it as much here in Utah, but things are lining up here where we could have that, where a wildfire becomes an urban fire or suburban fire.”
So is Utah in any way prepared if a situation that dire happens? It’s really not known.
Cova said communication is one of the best evacuation tools and that’s something that has immensely improved over the past few decades — as long as cellphone towers are able to provide service. For instance, reverse 911 technology is able to alert people right away.
But the major caveat to the recent study, Cova also acknowledged, is that no matter what is in an evacuation plan, it will always be an estimation because no scenario can really replicate conditions in real-time. He’s hopeful that the study will help spark future research into evacuation planning, so communities can improve their process and save lives.
When it moves that rapidly and conditions are that dry, it can jump from house to house to house. We’ve seen that in California, we’ve seen it Oregon and we’ve seen it in Colorado. We haven’t seen it as much here in Utah but things are lining up here where we could have that, where a wildfire becomes an urban fire or suburban fire.
–Utah Gov. Spencer Cox
Meanwhile, Cox said he believed Utah is prepared based on the practice and tabletop exercises that state and local leaders conduct on a regular basis.
“Utah is really good,” he said. “When we had the large evacuations in southern Utah County, it was really incredible to see, one, how fast we were able to get people out of there and, two, how everyone took care of everyone else. … We’re prepared for it but we’d rather never have to use it.”
While he also hopes it’s something that would never need to be used, the topic is something Cova has found to be increasingly relevant based on recent trends. He likens Utah’s fire evacuation planning to the other major natural disaster that looms in state leaders’ minds: a large-scale earthquake.
Both, he argues, are “low-probability events” that are still worth preparing for because they are inevitable.
“We are arguing we should avoid overly optimistic planning because the world’s changing,” he said. “We’re not saying, out of the blue, ‘We should do this.’ We’re saying look at Colorado, look at Oregon (and) look at California, with Utah and Pole Creek … just look around and notice everyone is saying the same thing: ‘Never seen anything like that before.'”
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