‘Living under a time bomb’

California communities scramble to avoid becoming the next wildfire tragedy
California communities scramble to avoid becoming the next wildfire tragedy
The Alta Sierra neighborhood on the outskirts of Grass Valley, Calif., is at high risk for experiencing wildfires, like most of Nevada County. Some in the county fear that the death and destruction of the Camp Fire in Paradise foreshadows their future.
Photos by Ricky Carioti

The deadliest wildfire in California history was blazing far away from here, about 75 miles north in the town of Paradise, but Mark Cooper and Galen Ellis saw danger just outside of their window.

The couple’s beige three-bedroom house blends beautifully with their wooded lot. But the next time a wind-swept firestorm erupts here in the Sierra Nevada Mountain foothills, they fear those cedar and ponderosa pine trees could become a flaming 20-story cage.

The Alta Sierra neighborhood on the outskirts of Grass Valley, Calif., is at high risk for experiencing wildfires, like most of Nevada County. Some in the county fear that the death and destruction of the Camp Fire in Paradise foreshadows their future.

“We are now at the point of wondering: Do the risks now outweigh the costs of owning a home?” said Ellis, who is 57 and nearing retirement. “A lot of people here are thinking, ‘It wasn’t me this year, but it could be next year.’”

With their homeowners’ insurance set to triple, Cooper and Ellis are seriously considering leaving town, a window into the jaw-clenching fear now gripping this rustic mountain region
as residents worry that the death and destruction in Paradise foreshadows their own futures.

“This whole thing of being able to outrun fire, or defend against fire, it really doesn’t seem to apply anymore,” said Diana Cobbe, 62, who also lives in Nevada City, one of 188 California communities designated for extreme wildfire danger. “You now kind of feel like you are living under a time bomb.”

With Cobbe and other panicked residents jamming into community and fire safety meetings seeking answers, officials throughout California have been rushing to fortify vulnerable communities even as they acknowledge it’s a battle they might not be able to win.

Mark Cooper and his partner, Galen Ellis, at their home in Nevada City, Calif. are worried about fire risks and homeownership costs. With their homeowners’ insurance set to triple, they are considering leaving.

That’s especially true here in Nevada County, which has similar topographic features to Paradise, where at least 85 people were killed and 19,000 structures were destroyed by the Camp Fire last month.

“We have had a lot of conversations about what the potential is, and how can we stop these in totality,” said Pete Muñoa, chief of the Land Use Planning Program division at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), which oversees state fire suppression and prevention. “You have to look at building construction; you have got to look at where people are living.”

Although the debate is still in early stages, Muñoa said lawmakers and regulators might consider new rules for vegetation management as well as broader revisions to building codes and development plans. State and local officials also plan to modify evacuation plans, a recognition that there are too many people living in wooded areas near too few highways.

Earlier this year, state legislators granted $200 million to Cal Fire to expedite vegetation removal and other fire prevention measures, while electric utility PG&E is expanding efforts to cut down trees near power lines.

But State Senator Bill Dodd (D), who helped push for these changes, said the problem is bigger than any quick fix.

“Let’s face it, we don’t have a lot of short-term solutions in our tool bag,” Dodd said, adding that federal and state government share blame for not being more proactive.

[Nearly a month after the Camp Fire began razing their towns, Californians return to ruin]

Even before the wildfire destroyed Paradise, Cal Fire was sounding the alarm. In its 2018 strategic plan released in August, Cal Fire noted the average size of a wildfire in the state had grown to more than 14,000 acres, compared to less than 8,000 acres 20 years ago. The report cited climate change as a contributing factor.

Then on Nov. 8, driven by fierce westerly winds, the Camp Fire advanced quickly into Paradise and surrounding communities — at times burning an area the equivalent of a football field per second. Many evacuees spent hours stuck in traffic as flames brushed their vehicles.

About 1,300 California communities, accounting for 3 million housing units, have been classified as vulnerable to major damage from a wildfire. In Nevada County, where 100,000 residents are spread over 900 square miles, about three-fourths of the land area falls in the “very high” risk classification.

Even the county’s more urbanized areas are considered at extreme risk. Separated by about 10 miles, Nevada City and Grass Valley were founded around 1850 by miners who flocked to the region during the gold rush. Today, they include vibrant downtowns that intersperse the region’s mining heritage with new-money wine shops and clothing stores catering to young professionals and retirees from wealthy California coastal cities.

Fire is ingrained in the cities’ histories. The commercial centers of both burned shortly after their founding, and the “Forty-Niner” wildfire in 1988 destroyed 312 structures in the western part of the county.

But the loss of life in Paradise has touched Nevada County “in ways that even its own fires did not do,” said Robin Davies, the chief executive of the Grass Valley Chamber of Commerce.

“We just watched a very similar community, an entire city, go up in flames, and it’s a reminder that if something like that were to happen again, we would all be at risk,” said Davies.

A woman and her children cross the street in Nevada City, which has a vibrant downtown.

‘We are killing ourselves’

John Gulserian, manager of Nevada County’s Office of Emergency Services, is especially aware of the dangers facing county residents. Before he took over as the head of emergency preparedness here, Gulserian held a similar title in Butte County. He still owns a house in Paradise, in which his 26-year-old daughter, Kindra, was living when the Camp Fire erupted.

At about 9 a.m. on the morning of the fire, Kindra called and told her father that the fire “was all around” their property. Then her cellphone went dead.

Gulserian jumped into his vehicle and sped toward Paradise, a 90-minute drive, to try to save her. But Kindra was able to narrowly escape — her van ran out of gas just a few miles from the western extent of the fire.

“We met on the side of the highway and she literally collapsed into my arms,” said Gulserian, whose house was destroyed by the fire. “I had to pick her up off the road because she had saw her life go right before her eyes.”

Gulserian has been thinking about how he can better prepare Nevada County for a similar tragedy.
Officials need to update evacuation plans, expand fire breaks around populated areas and better-educate residents about the danger, he said.

California’s fire code already mandates that newly built homes near wildland areas are built with fireproof roofs, windows and decks and requires homeowners to clear flammable materials within 100 feet of their homes. But Gulserian is pushing to update state law to make it easier for government officials to access private land when owners refuse to maintain their property.

[How humans have made wildfires worse]

In some especially vulnerable communities, Gulserian would like to see reflective signs directing motorists to evacuation routes.

“Even a small arrow pointing toward a bigger highway could make the difference,” he said, noting that smoke from a large wildfire will block out sunlight.

Some of the proposed changes won’t be easy. Many Nevada County homeowners, Gulserian said, are especially hesitant to cut trees.

“We’ve got a lot of folks moving in from the [San Francisco] Bay Area, and they love their trees, but we are killing ourselves loving the trees,” said Gulserian, adding that some properties contain “hundreds of trees per acre” when a maximum of 40 to 50 per acre is considered ideal to reduce the rapid spread of a fire.

Still, Gulserian knows that even the most diligent planning may not be enough to save lives when 50 mph winds are pushing flames through parched forests.

“If you are evacuating everyone at the same time, you would need a six-lane freeway going through town just to get everyone out,” Gulserian said. Officials in Paradise determined they would have had to start evacuations two hours before the fire began to get all 26,000 residents to safety before it swept into town, he said.

John Gulserian, program manager for the Office of Emergency Services of Nevada County, is pushing to update state law to make it easier for government officials to clear vegetation from private property when landowners refuse to.
Fire is ingrained in the history of Nevada City. The commercial center burned shortly after its founding.
A fire danger sign greets visitors to Alta Sierra.
Top: John Gulserian, program manager for the Office of Emergency Services of Nevada County, is pushing to update state law to make it easier for government officials to clear vegetation from private property when landowners refuse to. Bottom left: Fire is ingrained in the history of Nevada City. The commercial center burned shortly after its founding. Bottom right: A fire danger sign greets visitors to Alta Sierra.

Transforming the housing market

Muñoa, from Cal Fire, said the state’s fire and housing codes have been extensively revised in recent years, requiring input from state and local planners and firefighters before new homes can be built in areas of extreme fire danger. Lawmakers and regulators will likely push for better enforcement of the existing regulations before considering potential new ones, Muñoa said, including possible restrictions on how close together houses can be built in at-risk areas.

Dodd, the state legislator, said the state needs to step up modeling of high-fire risk conditions, enabling earlier evacuations and preemptively shutting off electricity in dry, windy weather.

Gordon Baker, a real estate agent who has worked in Nevada County since the mid-1980s, said his industry is bracing for potentially “transformational changes” to building codes that could dramatically increase the cost of housing.

This fall, even before the Camp Fire, several homeowners insurance companies started notifying clients that they were no longer offering fire insurance in the area. Others have drastically hiked premiums, Baker said.

Ellis, for example, learned this month that her fire insurance premium will increase from $849 to $2,674 per year, after AAA dropped her existing coverage.

They’re considering selling their home and living out of their Mercedes van and pop-up trailer.

“If people want to move here, I wouldn’t recommend it,” said Cooper, who has lived in Nevada County since he was 12 years old. “Or if you do, with this fire danger, you might as well just assume one day you will come home and it won’t be there.”

[How they survived: Owners of the few homes left standing around Paradise, Calif., took critical steps to ward off wildfires]

Despite that sentiment, local officials are not anticipating a significant drop in demand for houses. In fact, they say, the county’s population might increase as residents displaced in Paradise seek out housing.

Scotts Flat Lake at Cascade Shores in Nevada City. “I now have people coming to me asking, ‘If I get trapped, can I come down here and jump in the lake?’” said Gary Doshier, 43, who manages access to the boat launch at Scotts Flat Reservoir.

Earlier this year, the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management published a study of housing transactions following wildfires in Colorado between 2000 and 2012, concluding that major fires only temporarily weaken housing markets in wildland areas.

“After a year or so has passed when incoming buyers come in and they see two houses — one in a risky area and the other not — they bid on the houses the same as they would before the fire,” said one of the authors, Shawn J. McCoy, an economics professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

For now, however, the local discussion about the wildfire danger is grim.

In the Cascade Shores, a wooded development that surrounds a large reservoir, residents say they have only two roads to escape the mountain should a fire threaten the community.

“I now have people coming to me asking, ‘If I get trapped, can I come down here and jump in the lake?’” said Gary Doshier, 43, who manages access to the boat launch at Scotts Flatt Reservoir.

In Alta Sierra, a neighborhood that includes a country club on the outskirts of Grass Valley, 82-year-old Bob Rixon doesn’t have a nearby lake to consider his refuge of last resort. The Navy veteran sounded helpless as he talked about the expected traffic jam should all his neighbors have to leave their homes at once.

“I’d probably just drive down onto the golf course and park right there,” Rixon said. “At least there are no trees.”

In Cascade Shores, residents say they have only two roads to escape the mountain should a fire threaten the community.
Credits: By Tim Craig. Photos by Ricky Carioti. Designed by Madison Walls. Photo Editing by Karly Domb Sadof.