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In Fire Scorched California, Town Aims To Buy The Highest At-Risk Properties

Aug 23, 2021
Originally published on August 23, 2021 1:06 pm

By the heat of the afternoon, smoke from the largest wildfire burning in the U.S., the Dixie Fire, drifts into Paradise, Calif.

"Quite literally, it's hanging over your head," says Dan Efseaff, director of the Paradise Recreation and District.

For many locals, seeing and smelling the smoke is a constant if ominous reminder of the 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed some 19,000 structures here. The Dixie Fire ignited in nearly the same place.

"We had some days, [with] the sun blocked out, it was dark as night," Efseaff says, as he steers his SUV off of a highway lined on both sides by stumps from logged, charred pine trees. It's then a right turn down a narrow, steep winding dirt road leading to the rim of the canyon where the flames entered Paradise nearly three years ago.

Fire trucks can't get in to protect homes in places like this because it's too dangerous. And while the burnt homes in this leveled neighborhood probably wouldn't have gotten permits in modern times, they're no anomaly in the libertarian rural West. There is a legacy of loose zoning, and some people have to live in places like this because it's cheaper.

"This is not something a fire engine would even entertain going down," he says.

Dan Efseaff is spearheading an effort to buy high risk wildfire properties and turn them into a green space to buffer against future wildfires.
Kirk Siegler / NPR

But that's precisely why Efseaff has his eye on properties like these. It's part of a new, ambitious town effort to identify the most high risk properties in the burn area and, if there are willing sellers, buy them and turn them into fire resistant green spaces.

"There have been so many instances of these fires, people know that we have to do something different," he says.

The idea is to connect the burnt out lots to the town's existing park land. That's good for adding more recreation but it could also work as a fuel break. Efseaff's department could strictly manage forests like this with the hopes that the next wildfire might slow down here and give firefighters a chance.

"Every single one of these properties we're looking at from the standpoint of, what can we do to limit the spread of fire, is this a staging area," Efseaff says. "I think it's going to make the community safer."

What will it cost?

This is not eminent domain. The parks program is voluntary. So far they have acquired about 300 acres of new land, with about 500 more acres in the pipeline, mostly paid for with non profit grant money and donations. But Efseaff estimates they may need $20 million or more to have a serious impact from a wildfire prevention standpoint.

That sounds like a lot. But consider that the 2018 Camp Fire did about $16 billion in damage, the single most expensive disaster in the world that year. And these days, the U.S. government is spending upwards of $2 billion on fire suppression, with the primary aim of keeping flames away from homes and whole communities.

Efseaff says in Paradise there's a new mindset that the town has to be as climate and wildfire resilient as possible.

"We're going to have to learn how to live with it in a better way and not just kind of build and hope for the best, which has been kind of the approach in the past," he says.

The federal government has been buying out people who live in high risk flood zones for almost three decades. And as the West cooks in extreme drought, there's interest in replicating this in certain high risk fire zones. A change in federal law recently devoted funding to study the feasibility of this in places like the Sierra Nevada, and Paradise is eager for federal support.

Michael Wara, a climate resiliency expert at Stanford, says what's going on in Paradise could be a model for many other forested, flammable communities.
But he's not sure it will work as well in places that haven't already burned.

"What's more challenging is getting people in existing homes to be willing to leave their homes and their communities so that those homes can be torn down to create this kind of space," he says.

Wara believes that will be an even tougher sell in California, where a lot of people moved to towns like Paradise because they can't afford to live anywhere else.

"The housing crisis in California really complicates any response to the wildfire crisis," he says.

Why 'hardening' homes may be more cost effective

So on a grand scale, experts interviewed for this story say public money may be better spent toward "hardening" existing homes, bringing them up to fire safe building codes, and keeping brush and shrubbery around them cleared out.

Of course, every option is expensive. According to the western think tank Headwaters Economics, some 40 million westerners are now living in the potential path of wildfires.

But then again last year alone, remember that the U.S. government spent $2.2 billion on suppression, and CalFire, hundreds of millions more. The numbers have risen steadily since 1985, according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho.

In Paradise, there's a sense of urgency behind all of the reforms because the pace of rebuilding has even surprised town leaders.

Jim Broshears, the town's emergency management coordinator and a longtime wildland fire chief in the Sierra, stands on a burnt out lot along the town's main artery, called the Skyway. On a recent morning it was humming with construction trucks and other traffic.

"That traffic is evidence that there's people living here, working here, things are happening here," Broshears says.

Broshears's home was one of a few spared in 2018, something he says was at least partly to do with its fire resistant materials and him clearing out all the brush and creating "defensible space." He says another huge catastrophic wildfire like the once unimaginable Camp Fire could happen again.

"We have to rethink what's possible," Broshears says.

For Broshears, that means any and all mitigation strategies, from clearing brush out of vacant lots like the one he's standing on, to putting more green park land in strategic places to work as buffer zones. Before the Camp Fire, this town was built out into a dense, overgrown forest, where wildfires had largely been suppressed for nearly a century.

"You go from a natural stocking level of 30 trees an acre to 150 trees an acre [and] the health of the forest is compromised," Broshears says. "So the new forest in Paradise, you won't see that again."

They've removed almost 40,000 trees here. Depending on who you ask, town is an eerie skeleton of its former self, or it's a blank slate, a fresh start.

Selling out was 'the right move' for one family

When Helene and Paul Baker go back to property the family owned in a gulch along a creek they hardly even recognize it.

"You wouldn't know it but there's a nice creek there at the bottom, all this was cleared out," the couple said during a recent visit.

They lost a family home in the Camp Fire that Helene's parents had built long ago on these three acres. When they heard the parks department was interested, it was an easy decision to sell. This land will open up public access to an 18 acre parks property up on an adjacent hill.

Eager to see their old family land "turned into something beautiful," Helene and Paul Baker were among the first to sell property to the local parks department.
Kirk Siegler / NPR

"We were happy with the idea that my folks' old property could be turned into something beautiful rather than just somebody building another house," Helene says.

The Bakers were among the first sellers to take part in the program. Town officials are hoping more might follow them once more PG&E settlement money starts coming in for fire survivors, and if or when the federal government gets serious about funding prevention work like this.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: The U.S. government is now spending upwards of $2 billion fighting wildfires every year, much of it aimed at keeping the flames away from homes and communities. Now one California town is looking to buy out some of its most high-risk residential properties and turn them into fire-resistant green spaces. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: By the heat of the afternoon, smoke from the largest wildfire burning in the U.S, the Dixie Fire drifts into Paradise, Calif. The Dixie ignited in nearly the same place as the 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed almost 19,000 buildings here. Seeing and smelling the smoke is a constant, if ominous, reminder.

DAN EFSEAFF: Quite literally, it's hanging over your head. We had some days that the sun was blacked out and as dark as night.

SIEGLER: Dan Efseaff, Paradise's parks and rec director, turns right off a highway lined on both sides by stumps from logged, charred pine trees. A narrow, steep, winding dirt road leads us to the rim of the canyon where the flames entered Paradise nearly three years ago.

EFSEAFF: This is not something that a fire engine would even entertain going down.

SIEGLER: Fire trucks can't get in to protect homes in places like this because it's too dangerous.

EFSEAFF: We have 21 acres down here. And we'll step out. them.

SIEGLER: This neighborhood was leveled. It's unrecognizable.

Are we standing on somebody's old home, I think?

EFSEAFF: We are. We are.

SIEGLER: The homes that burned probably wouldn't have gotten building permits today, but this neighborhood is no anomaly in the libertarian rural West. There's a legacy of loose zoning. And some people have to live in places like this because it's cheaper.

EFSEAFF: And you can see this area got decimated.

SIEGLER: Yet Efseaff sees opportunity here.

EFSEAFF: There have been so many instances of these fires, people know that we have to do something different.

SIEGLER: The town has bought up land from Camp Fire survivors who either couldn't or didn't want to rebuild. The idea is to connect it to their existing parkland. That's good for recreation but also as a fuel break. They can strictly manage this forest with the hopes that the next wildfire slows down here and gives firefighters a chance.

EFSEAFF: Every single one of these properties we're looking at from the standpoint of, what can we do to limit the spread of fire? Is this a staging area and all of that? And I think it's going to make the community safer.

SIEGLER: This is not eminent domain. It's voluntary, but they've acquired about 300 acres of new land with about 500 more in the pipeline. It's mostly paid for with nonprofit grant money and donations. But Efseaff estimates they may need 20 million or more to really make this a success. That sounds like a lot, but consider that the campfire did about $16 billion in damages. Efseaff says in Paradise, there's a new mindset that the town has to be as climate- and wildfire-resilient as possible.

EFSEAFF: So we're going to have to learn how to live with it in a better way and not just kind of build and hope for the best, which has been kind of the approach, I think, in the past.

SIEGLER: The federal government has been buying out people who live in high-risk flood zones for almost three decades. And as the West cooks in extreme drought, there's interest in replicating this to certain high-risk fire zones. A change in federal law recently devoted funding to study the feasibility of this in places like the Sierra Nevada. Michael Wara is a climate resiliency expert at Stanford. He says what's going on in Paradise could be a model for many other forested, flammable communities. But he's not sure it will work as well in places that haven't already burned.

MICHAEL WARA: What's more challenging is getting people in existing homes to be willing to leave their homes and their communities so that those homes can be torn down to create this kind of space.

SIEGLER: Wara says that will be an even tougher sell in California, where a lot of people move to towns like Paradise because they can't afford to live anywhere else.

WARA: The housing crisis in California really complicates any response to the wildfire crisis.

SIEGLER: So on a grand scale, experts interviewed for this story say public money may be better spent toward hardening existing homes, bringing them up to fire-safe building codes and keeping brush and shrubbery around them cleared out. While every option is expensive, according to the western think tank Headwaters Economics, some 40 million Westerners are now living in the potential path of wildfires. But then again, last year alone, the U.S. government spent 2.2 billion on suppression and Cal Fire hundreds of millions more. In Paradise, there's a sense of urgency behind the reforms. The pace of rebuilding has even surprised town leaders.

JIM BROSHEARS: What you're seeing is Skyway, which is the main feed. And that traffic is evidence that there's people living here. There's people working here. It's - things are happening here.

SIEGLER: Jim Broshears is in charge of paradises emergency management. He's also been a wildland fire chief for 50 years in the Sierra Nevada.

BROSHEARS: We have to rethink what's possible.

SIEGLER: Another huge catastrophic wildfire like the once-unthinkable Camp Fire could happen again, he says. So doing things like clearing brush out of vacant lots, like the one we're standing on, and putting more green parkland in strategic places should make Paradise safer. Before the Camp Fire, town was built out into a dense, overgrown forest.

BROSHEARS: You go from a natural stocking level of 30 trees an acre to 150 trees an acre. The burning condition, the health of the forest is compromised. So the new forest in Paradise - you won't see that again.

SIEGLER: They've removed almost 40,000 trees here. Depending on who you ask, town is an eerie skeleton of its former self, or it's a blank slate, a fresh start. When Helene and Paul Baker go back to property the family owned in a gulch along a creek, they hardly even recognize it.

PAUL BAKER: You wouldn't know, but there's a nice creek right there at the bottom.

HELENE BAKER: It was a beautiful creek. All this was cleared out.

SIEGLER: The couple lost a family home in the Camp Fire that Helene's parents had built long ago on these three acres. When they heard the parks department was interested, it was an easy decision to sell. This land will open up public access to an 18-acre parks property up on the hill behind us.

H BAKER: We were happy with the idea that my folks' old property could be turned into something beautiful rather than just somebody building another house.

SIEGLER: The Bakers were among the first sellers. Town officials are hoping more might follow them once more PG&E settlement money starts coming in for fire survivors and if or when the federal government gets serious about funding prevention work like this.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Paradise.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEWARE OF SAFETY'S "MULBERRY AND HEATHER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.