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The Camp Fire - The Future of America's Wildfires?

by Chuck Sheley (Cave Junction '59) |

This historic firestorm started on Thursday, November 8, 2018, in the early morning hours. By that evening it was within three
miles of our home in Chico. It was contained 17 days later at over 150,000 acres. There were at least 86 fatalities and about 14,000 homes destroyed. Paradise, a town of 27,000, was wiped off the map in a period of hours.

In response to the number of NSA members inquiring about the safety of my wife and myself, I started sending out daily "blurbs." What follows is my view of the Camp Fire as it happened.

Day 1 - The Perfect Storm

The sky quickly became overcast and dark over Chico by 0730. The cloud engulfing the sky was black and moving rapidly. We turned on the TV.

A wildfire had started in the Feather River Canyon, destroyed the small community of Concow within 30 minutes and was headed for Paradise.

I left for Redding where I was to help officiate the North Section Cross County Championships. About halfway through the meet, my replacement ankle was hurting me so much that I decided to call it a day and return home to Chico.

By the time I got to Red Bluff, 45 miles from Chico, the sky to the south was completely black. When I got home by 1500, it was necessary to drive with headlights on - the street lights also came on about that time. By 1700 it was close to nighttime dark.

Our 11-year-old grandson was staying with us. When we walked out to the driveway, I told him what he was seeing was something that we hope we will never see again. Even at that time, I had no idea of the enormity of the situation.

Day 2 - This Is Really Bad

The town of Paradise is 10 miles east of Chico at about 2,000 feet elevation. Above Paradise are the small towns of Magalia and Sterling City (3,500 elevation). This area was the center of very large logging operations by the Diamond Match Co. in the 1930s and 40s. My Dad grew up in Sterling City, and I remember a photo of him working the log pond with a pike pole at age 14.

Paradise is located on a wide ridge between two deep canyons. It was threatened by fire in 2008 when about 9,000 were forced to evacuate due to the Humboldt Fire.

Many people work in Chico but live in Paradise. Besides being cheaper, the summer temps are 20 degrees cooler than the valley heat. It was a beautiful town and an area with many retirees from Southern Calif. and the Bay Area. Reading the Paradise obits, one can see retired law enforcement, fire chiefs, and ranking military types.

Thousands of people have poured into Chico as they escaped down the Skyway, the main road to Chico. Some people in eastern Chico are under evacuation orders and others are evacuating without an order - panic.

Day 3 - 52,000 Acres

After two days, most of which have actually been in near darkness, smoke is grey and now lifting. I think it is being blown in another direction. The fire is burning deeper into the communities above Paradise - Magalia and Sterling City. Nine dead found so far.

One reporter said he walked by a line of 90+ cars that had been abandoned as people tried to get out of Paradise. All roads up there are two lanes and only get to four lanes once you get on the Chico side of the town. Officials turned all four lanes in the "out" direction, but the bottlenecks were terrific. There will be more bodies found as many of these roads were in the "woods."

The main hospital and high school did not burn. Eight other schools burned. All schools in the county closed until after Thanksgiving. Then - what do you do with 3,000 students? Even though the HS did not burn, the students' homes probably did.

Reported that Butte Co. Sheriff's staff lost 20 of their homes - how long can they stay on the job? I don't know if we have seen conditions like this before.

The bulk mailer for Smokejumper magazine lost his business and home. All of our mailing supplies are gone. Little compared to the loss suffered by this gentleman.

California Professional Firefighters President Brian Rice called Pres. Trump's threat to withhold federal aid "ill-informed, ill-timed and demeaning."

Day 4 - Social Media

Bad 110,000 acres 20% controlled, 14 additional bodies found yesterday bringing total to 23 dead. There are still hundreds of burned-out cars on the back roads to be checked. Saw video of a burnedout school bus along side of the road - obviously the kids got away.

There are 4,000 personnel on the fire-440 engines. We actually have sun in Chico today as smoke is blowing SE. Fire is moving higher up into the mountains above Paradise - about all that is left to burn.

Many family members are trying to get connected. Kids are being evacuated from their school and taken to one area (Oroville) and parents working in Chico or escaping from Paradise-many in the nick of time. Others not.

There are six ex-jumpers and families with Paradise addresses. We have already helped Keith Lockwood's (CJ-64) daughter with GSF aid as she lost everything - her escape story is chilling. Have contacted Bob Hooper (CJ-67) and hope to have lunch with him this week. The others - will wait to sort out later.

The area is still closed, which is creating a lot of problems - residents want to get back in to see what's left, law enforcement has to keep them out. Tempers are high at the blockades. Glad my son is a retired Deputy, as he had to do the same thing a couple years back in 2008 fire.

This could go on until we get some rain-52,000 people evacuated. I can't imagine how all the Paradise area people are going to get by, but they will. Amazing attitudes from those interviewed. However, like we saw in John Culbertson's story in Smokejumper magazine about the Thomas Fire, the next step is depression. Social media still continues to be a big problem as rumors and inaccurate information flows faster than you can digest it. Early on, it created an evacuation panic among many in Chico.

Day 5 - Still Going

Many of the streets in Paradise are cul-de-sacs that lead into single-lane roads. A lot of these cul-de-sacs were stacked with mobile home type dwellings. Many retirees, a number without cars, depend upon senior transportation.

There was a heartbreaking video on TV showing an older man wandering alongside a house that was completely consumed in fire. He was in a daze. People were trying to get him into a car and out of there. He kept wondering what was going to happen to his car - you could see that he was in another world.

As you move up the hill from Paradise to Magalia, you are at about 2,400 elevation. Magalia has a good number of people who live in the woods and don't want to be disturbed - a lot of people with a ton of firearms. My son always hated the "domestic problems" calls in that area. He never had to use his firearm and was never shot at, but was within a hair on several occasions. Who knows how many didn't make it out of the woods?

During the 80s/90s when I was running the Type II Crew Program on the Mendocino N.F., I had a roster of about 12 fire-bus drivers. I had every driver attend the classroom fire training and then required them to take the 24-hour field training. They drove the trainees to Alder Springs and experienced smoke and fire.

This morning I read about a Paradise school bus driver who had a mini-bus with a specialneeds child. The radio system went down and this bus was MIA. Well, with Ponderosa Elementary School burning, ex-fire bus driver Angie Van Blaricom drove her bus to the Save Mart parking lot where she had a safe space. Did her fire training of 20+ years ago kick in? Who knows, but I feel good.

When I read about the Southern Calif. fires and celebs losing their million-dollar homes, I do not have a lick of sympathy. They need to drive up this way and spend a week in a tent in the Walmart parking lot.

Understanding The Roads

I would like to explain the road situation in Paradise, as that led to some of the fatalities. There are better answers to evacuating from an advancing, uncontrolled wildfire, and this will be dealt with in future issues of Smokejumper.

There is a four-lane road going from Chico to Paradise called the Skyway. However, when it enters Paradise, it turns into a normal two-lane road. As it runs up the hill toward Magalia, it get into the twists and turns of a mountain road even though it is considered inside the town of Paradise.

Off the Skyway, there are numerous two-lane roads leading to other parts of the town and numerous cul-de-sacs with mobile homes and houses. Picture 20,000 people trying to get onto the Skyway. It's not a situation where a good person will let you come in from a side lane. Everyone is in a panic mode, and the people on the side streets stand no chance of getting in. It is every person for themself!

After the 2008 Humboldt Fire, a wise congressman got $20 million in federal funds to improve a road out the top end of Paradise. Good thinking. Today the local newspaper touted the success of that road in getting people out of the area when the fire got to Magalia, above Paradise.

Maybe this is correct, but I am a skeptic. The number of people above Paradise is a small fraction of those caught on Nov. 8th. They had plenty of warning and were plenty scared by that time. I'm guessing that many got out before the evacuation notice.

Biggest question - could this have worked for Paradise? I doubt it. If anyone attempted to drive up the Skyway, they would have been met by cars coming down that road in both lanes and passing on the dirt whenever possible. It was a pure panic situation - get out of my way! Would this $20 million have been better spent improving the Skyway in Paradise?

Bottom line is that the primary goal of the people in Paradise should have been to reach a "safe zone" or "shelter in place." The problem is that very few people understand wildfire - as evidenced by the recent tweets from D.C. If people are going to live in the wildland Urban Interface, they will have to understand what is "defensible space." This is not going to happen. People rely on the government agencies to take care of them - personal responsibility is a thing of the past.

Houses can be defended, but it takes work. If you are going to live in the woods and enjoy the shade of the big trees, you are going to have to do your part in defending your home. But, people are not going to do that. It is too much work.

Many of the residents of Paradise are older and retired. They count on Cal Fire to save them, even though they live in a hazard area. We have become dependent upon others to do what we should be doing ourselves. We are asking our fire people to do the impossible. The fire of 2008 is not the fire of 2018.

We need a major fuel reduction program in the western U.S. It is going to cost money. Maybe people are going to come to the realization that a dollar spent is $10 saved in heartache. I don't think so. Look to the January issue of Smokejumper magazine for some great articles on fuel reduction. You need to add that term to your vocabulary if you live in the Western United States. Don't look to D.C. to solve your problems - they have little or no understanding of wildfire in the west.

Day 6 - This is Impossible - Wrong!

The death toll went from 29 yesterday to 42 last night. You have to take a step back and look at what we are dealing with here. There are close to 7,000 homes burned to the ground. There were a large number of retirees and aging people living in Paradise. The escape roads became impassible. The young could get out and walk or run. People in their 80s can't do that.

With the number of homes destroyed, think of the tremendous job of searching for remains. The figure in missing people has been reported to be over 200. The burned homes will have to be sifted for any remains.

The Sheriff is bringing in additional personnel and cadaver dogs. I don't know how Sheriff Kory Honea is standing up. He and his staff are small compared to all of the other resources, but their job is tremendous. Body recovery and identification rise to the top. Everyone wants to know whose bones were found in the rubble.

People are getting more irritated and disturbed that they can't get back into the area where their homes were or are still standing. The hazard trees are almost uncountable. Everyone who has been on the fireline knows that these burned trees could fall at any time. There are thousands of them. Still, the Sheriff has to deal with irate people wanting to get back in.

Listening to the media continues to be a challenge for anyone experienced in fire. I know those stupid questions have to be answered whenever there is a news conference. My wife tells me that yelling at the TV is not productive.

I keep hoping that Cal Fire will not use this event to lobby for more people and equipment. They have a strong union and I know that is going to come up. My real hope is that we start talking about serious fuel reduction plans.

Fred Rohrbach (MSO-65), who owns AAmerica furniture in Seattle, has made an offer of a semi load of furniture. This will take time, as I have not yet located smokejumper families in the area to find out their future plans. Just another example of a tight-knit group standing tall. The Day 7 report is very predictable at this time: More bodies found, acreage burn slowed, containment increased - two good, one bad.

Day 7 - Let's Have Some Good News

The Paradise H.S. football team was set to start the post-season playoffs when the fire hit. They were to play Red Bluff in the first round and Red Bluff even offered to let them automatically advance. Of course playing again this season was impossible - most lost their homes and football was the last thing on their minds.

Enter the San Francisco 49ers who gave them 68 tickets for the Monday Night game against the N.Y. Giants. The Chico School District provided buses for the trip to the Bay Area and the game. 49er strength coach, Shane Wallen, grew up in Paradise and his father's house was lost in the fire.

Chico native and Green Bay Packer quarterback Aaron Rodgers talked about the fire in his postgame news conference after leading the Packers past the Miami Dolphins. Rodgers lived in Magalia at one time and his folks still live in Chico.

Tom Boatner (FBX-80) forwarded this info about Deb Yoder (RDD-00): "Deb Yoder, former USFS and BLM jumper, lost her home in Paradise. She is currently doing volunteer medical work in the Marshall Islands, but normally works at the Paradise Hospital."

I met with Bob Hooper (CJ-67) today for lunch, and he is doing fine. As I was driving back from lunch with Bob, I kept noticing the amount of fire personnel around town. My thoughts - are we getting to the point where this fire is overstaffed? The resources on hand are tremendous.

On another personal basis-each day I wake up and think this might be a dream. Fire has always been an adrenalin rush for me. I loved smokejumping and felt good at stopping a fire in its infancy. This is different. A town of 27,000 wiped off the map. Untold numbers still missing. When you read about an earthquake that kills thousands in a foreign country, it is just another day. Close to home is different.

I watched the Cal Fire briefing this morning and I continue to marvel at this organization. Hot spots within the last six hours were shown on a map-many of them were from burnout operations done last night. Cal Fire works at night when wind and other conditions are better-take note USFS.

At last night's news briefing, Sheriff Honea continued to field questions in his calm and precise manner. One reporter started the questioning as to why people did not receive evacuation notices in time. The question had a tone that sounded like the Sheriff had dropped the ball. Let's see, this fire advanced 6.7 miles the first hour and 19.7 miles in the first 17 hours.

Sheriff Honea handled the Oroville Dam crisis last year when he ordered the evacuation of 80,000+ people as the tallest dam in the U.S. started to fail. He made a call while Water Resources people walked in a confused circle. One of the potentially largest disasters in the history of the U.S. did not happen, but it was close. A couple hundred thousand people lived downstream from the dam.

From personal knowledge I know that, due to budget limitations, there are only a couple Deputies on duty at some times for the whole county. The evacuation of 27,000 in a matter of hours is impossible. I sure wouldn't be able to stand and take questions like that and hold my cool. The Sheriff is something else-he doesn't pass the buck and he takes the lead.

Downside - Sierra Nevada Brewery, one of the largest in the nation, is serving free meals to the evacuees in their exclusive restaurant. In the article about this, it was mentioned that first responders were spotted heading into the restaurant. I have a problem with this as all personnel on the fire are well fed at the fire center at the fairgrounds or the restaurants in town. They don't need to compete for places at the table with the evacuees.

Day 8 - Athletes Are Great

Just listened to the morning briefing and things are slowing to the common grind of wildland firefighting. We're at 140,000 acres and 40% contained. Humidity has increased to the point where it is hampering nighttime firing efforts.

There are about 1,000 people camped out in the Walmart parking lot and many more on open spaces around town. Rain predicted for next Tuesday - good for fire control-will be horrible for all the people camped out. It's getting into the low 30s at night, and the smoke cover is holding down daytime temps.

We are in the final stages of the fall sports playoffs that lead teams to the Nor-Cal and potentially the state playoffs. A couple heart-warming stories from that venue:

A very small private school in Paradise made it by the first round in the girl's volleyball and was set for the next set of games when the fire hit. They did round up enough players but had no uniforms and gear. State CIF gave them the OK to play in t-shirts and shorts. When they arrived for the game down in Auburn, the host school had purchased uniforms with the correct numbers for each of the Paradise girls. Add to that, they gave each of the girls $300 gift cards. What a class act!

When I was working the Cross Country Championships on the day the fire started, some of the Paradise High runners were able to make it via parents. One of their top young men was among the runners that did not make it. He evacuated to Oroville in the nick of time.

The state gave him permission to run the course on another day and try to get a qualifying time. Hard to do when there is no competition and you are running solo. Cross Country is a lot different than Track.

When he arrived at the course, the Chico H.S. team was there. The Chico #1 runner was the section champ, winning by over 40 seconds.

Well, here's the rest of the story. The Chico #1 knew exactly the time the Paradise runner would have to run in order to make it to the state meet. He led the pack that included the CHS boys team. The young man from Paradise made the cutoff time by 30 seconds.

There is a lot of discussion with people saying they were not warned. This is going to be a big topic for months/years. How many of these people opted out of the system when they were asked to sign up? There have been enough interviews of people on TV who, when asked, ignored the evacuation warnings. There are people who, due to age and health, could not have made it out in any case.

With the tremendous rate of spread and the spotting, would it have helped if everyone in Paradise had gotten a warning in the first hour? I doubt it. Go back to the description of the road system. It was jammed to the point of no movement in most places. Unless you could physically run for a couple miles, you could not even get out of the feeder roads. And, then where would you be?

We will have to discuss "shelter in place" at some time, but that is a future topic for Smokejumper magazine.

Day 9 - Finger Pointing

We now have 63 dead. People are saying they weren't warned, no one told them, and on and on. "We weren't notified, my cell phone wasn't working." Someone has to be responsible. After all, personal responsibility is not popular today. Let's shift the blame on someone so I don't have to face up to my own failures.

They list Paradise at about 27,000, but there are many more communities scattered in the woods. The amount of people and the evacuation routes makes this an impossible situation. I don't think that a four-lane freeway all the way up to Magalia would have worked. Don't blame the Sheriff. There are over 50,000 people down here in Chico now. Looks like something worked!

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said evacuation orders were issued through 5,227 emails, 25,643 phone calls and 5,445 texts, in addition to social media and the use of loudspeakers. As cellphone service went down, authorities went into neighborhoods with bullhorns to tell people to leave, and that saved some lives.

This fire advanced 6.7 miles in the first hour. Have you ever heard of anything like that? I guess the Sheriff will be the punching bag for months to come. Is this what comes with the job?

I've stopped watching the Cal Fire morning briefings. They have the monster in a cage and are closing the loop. It's all about people now.

We have over 50,000 additional people in town. We're a town with 16,000 university students, and we are 25 miles away from the Oroville Dam repair project that has been going on for over a year now at a cost of over a billion dollars. Housing is not available.

They are starting to close down the tent cities that have sprung up around the city. Lucky people have relatives in other towns. What about the people who work in the area but have no housing? Add to that, rain coming next week - the smoke cover is already making the temps go to the mid30s at night.

My wife and I try not to leave the house and add to the traffic jams around town. She did leave this morning to get groceries at 0600. I went to the post office yesterday, looked at the lines and went home.

Concow is a small community of about 700 that was hit hard. A good number of the fatalities are from that area. There was a piece in our local newspaper telling about a family that protected their structures and "sheltered in place." Now, they are running out of supplies. No one is allowed in or out of the area. Somehow there must be a way to allow residents to leave, get supplies and return. We have National Guard here-these people could be escorted in and out.

One of those residents during the morning news said, "If we're going to live out there, we're going to have to take care of ourselves." That's my type of thinking.

There is a reservoir in Concow. Some people fled into the water when the fire hit. Remember, the fire started at about 0630, it got to Concow by 0710. Forget evacuation plans. Residents were helping others out of the water-some suffering from, ironically, hypothermia.

The fire drove a man out of the hills near Berry Creek yesterday. Long criminal background, been in prison, and a suspect in a double homicide. Once a person gets back into the hills, they can hide for years. After a shootout, this guy is no longer a problem.

I looked at the list of the missing-now at 631. There were people I graduated with from Chico H.S. Back then, Paradise did not have a high school and those students were bused down to Chico. I saw one of my basketball officials from the days when I was an assigner of officials. He was a fast running back for Chico State football in his college days. However, you don't run fast at age 78.

The chilling part of the list is seeing four people with same last names in a row. These aren't older people-my guess families. Let's hope they are just "missing."

Day 10 - Rains Coming

Heard about a gentleman who built his home up one of the canyons surrounding Chico. He was knowledgeable about fire and built the proper systems and defenses. Harold is still in business. His wife is a vegetarian-Harold isn't. Downside-he's down to the veggie pizzas and wants some meat.

Lynn lives in the foothills SE of Chico. For some reason, a neighbor gave her a pump for a nearby stream and showed her how to use it. Must have had a vision as this was before the fire started. Years ago Lynn was one of the top female Javelin throwers in the U.S. and represented the U.S. in international competition. Age and health problems have happened but she saved her house. Lynn also went through my wildland fire training years ago. Hope that knowledge played some part in this story.

Larry Boggs (RDD-63) sent me a newspaper article from 1992. He and a professor from Chico State were presenting a seminar about creating "Defensible Space." A video was shown about the Powerline Fire that had come close to the community. Quoting from the article: "Another factor, what Boggs called ‘our greatest problem,' is wind."

Three things stand out in Larry's presentation: Powerline, defensible space, wind. Oh, where was this seminar held? Paradise.

Sheriff Honea now has over 500 personnel looking for remains. The Sherriff continues to show his leadership. I think it is unusual to have a Sheriff with a law degree. He will be in congress in years to come.

Nine burn patients are in the hospital, ranging from critical to fair.

Significant rain coming next week-will be a miserable Thanksgiving for the people in tents and sleeping in their cars.

After the 49er game last week, the Paradise H.S. football team, who were the guests of the 49ers, went down to the playing field and ran some plays in Levi Stadium. Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young, now an announcer, came down to find out who they were. After finding out, he spent 30 minutes with those kids.

In an interview, I looked at Rick, the Paradise football coach. He is one of the most successful in Northern California. I remembered that young face when he was an assistant coach at Chico Jr. H.S., learning the game from our head football coach. We all age, but the look on his face reflected more than age-stress.

Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers continues to show class. After the Seattle game the other night, he showed up at the press conference wearing a "Butte Strong" sweatshirt. Reminder-he went to high school in Chico and played for our local Butte Community College before he hit the big time.

Day 11 Camp Fire - ound Two

I have five jumpers living in Paradise who I should find and see if they need any help from the NSA. Brian Kopka (MSO-95) called yesterday in answer to an email request I sent out. Brian was one of the 20-plus people from my Type II Crews that went on to become smokejumpers.

Brian was able to get his family out early and is staying at his stepson's house in Chico. He owns and operates Sierra Tree Care. Just about every piece of equipment and his home are gone. He was able to save one of his large loading trucks, a piece of equipment that will allow him to continue with his business. Brian's son will enroll in high school in Chico when classes resume.

Previously, I mentioned a $20 million project in 2008 to pave the road that runs out of the top end of Paradise. Many have wondered if this road was used and to what extent? Brian said that his folks, who lived in Magalia above Paradise, headed down the main road toward Chico. Fortunately, some law enforcement person started turning the line around and sent them out the top end of the town. Another mile and they would have been caught in the road jam that was overrun by fire.

I've got three jumpers to go. Joel Wilkinson (MSO-80) was another person from my Type II crews. He also runs a tree service in Paradise. Brian said he would try to help me find Joel. My last person is a CJ-46 jumper who has to be in his 90s if he is still alive. Ed was WWII Airborne and it has been 10 years since I've heard from him.

Got an email from Sandy Martinez and Jim Klump (RDD-64), and they are OK up in Forbestown.

That was quick. Joel Wilkinson just checked in. Being in the same business and smokejumpers, he was in contact with Brian Kopka. Joel and family made it down to Chico where he has relatives. He lost his home and a rental and all of his tree business equipment and gear. Like he says, "I'm at ground zero." Joel said his needs are being taken care of at this time. Told him the NSA Good Sam Fund is within a mile of him and waiting to help. Just got another name to check on-have two to go.

I'm keeping Fred Rohrbach's (MSO-65) offer of a semi-truck load of furniture in the wings. This will be something we will deal with down the line-could be 4-5 months. Fred has said he could possibly bring other companies into the plan. This is great. Fred always gets to the bottom line quickly-he's all business. Would not work well in any government organization.

The continual showing of air tanker drops on fires by the media has created a situation in the public's mind that you must have an air tanker show in order to fight wildfire. Locals are starting to ask why there weren't air tanker operations early on, as if it would have stopped this monster fire. First, the winds were reaching 50 mph and drops would have been useless. However, helicopters were used on useful water drops in an attempt to keep the evacuation routes open.

Chico Air Spray manager, Ravi Saip, made an offer of three of their Fire Boss water-scooping aircraft to Cal Fire. I know Ravi well as I was one of his Jr. H.S. teachers and his Cross Country Coach in high school. Air Spray is a Canadian air tanker company operating out of the old Aero Union facility at the Chico Airport.

For some reason, Cal Fire turned down the offer. Probably valid reasons, but unknown to me. I was bothered by a statement from a Cal Fire air attack person: "We tend to shy away from single engine tankers. Fire Bosses are good in places with large water sources."

With Lake Oroville, the 2nd largest reservoir in California, adjacent to the fire, it would seem like this would be a perfect tool to help keep the escape routes open. The turnaround time would have been short. I need to call Ravi and find out turnaround times and other factors.

The Fire Boss is a modification of the single engine Air Tractor and has an 800-gallon capacity. It can scoop from local water sources in minutes and return to the fire. The next day a 747 super tanker flying from Sacramento, 90 miles away, dropped three loads on the fire-expense-who knows? Is bigger always better?

The strength coach for the S.F. 49ers and his father visited the father's home in Paradise-completely destroyed. With all the restrictions, I wondered how they were able to access that area. Apparently they were granted VIP access. I have a problem with that, as there are people who "sheltered in place" and need to get out to get supplies. Would like to hear some more details on this one.

Day 12 - A Resource Turned Down

We're at 65% containment with rain coming. 150,000 acres, 10,364 homes destroyed and 77 fatalities. The amount of resources seems overwhelming to me: 597 engines, 65 water tenders, 28 helicopters, 100 hand crews, 83 dozers and 5,332 personnel. It's a mini D-Day.

There are numerous smaller towns in the hills - Paradise was just the largest. I've already talked about the roads being blocked - we still have over 1,000 missing. I think many have just left the area and kept on going.

After listening to more people, I can equate the escape from Paradise to some of those tragic building fires where hundreds of people are disoriented by smoke, jam the exits, thereby limiting the ability to get out. As much as it was an "every man for himself" situation, there are examples of the opposite.

A garbage truck driver doing his early morning route higher on the ridge turned around and went back to one of his customers. The lady was 93 years old and standing on her front yard. This gentleman put her in the big green truck and saved her.

Yesterday, I had lunch with a friend from the Reno area who came down to check on his cousin. The cousin has ALS and is confined to a wheel chair. The cousin's caregiver headed up the ridge when the fire hit. The caregiver came across a roadblock created by an older lady whose car was crossways and blocking the road.

The lady was confused and overwhelmed by the situation. The caregiver got out of his car, moved the older lady's car off the road, and put her into another vehicle. Then this gentleman proceeded up the road, loaded up the man with ALS and his heavy wheelchair, and started the escape. The road down the hill (Skyway) was jammed and cars were being overrun by the fire. Fortunately, he knows some of the older, dirt fire roads out of the area, and caregiver and cousin made it to Chico.

I mentioned yesterday that I was concerned about Air Spray's offer of three of their Fire Boss aircraft early on - Cal Fire turned down the offer. I called General Manager Ravi Saip first thing this morning to get some more detail.

Being in the air tanker contracting business, Ravi is normally hesitant to speak out whenever things like this happen. However, he lived in Paradise along with several of his employees.

Here's what I found out: At 0830 he offered Cal Fire three Sky Boss firefighting aircraft ready to go. They could have been off the Chico Airport and over the fire in minutes. Realistically, they would have had little effect on the flame front that was advancing at about one football field a second. However, this was still about 2.5 hours before the fire got to Clark Rd. and the Skyway, two main evacuation routes for the town.

The Sky Boss aircraft are not large air tankers, but are an excellent tool. They are a scooper-type aircraft and can drop 800 gallons of water and can fly low and slow - great accuracy. Lake Oroville is adjacent to the fire. This aircraft can reload in less than a minute while skimming the surface at 80 mph.

Three of these aircraft would operate in tandem following each other - drop, scoop, drop, etc. The reload time from fire to Lake Oroville would have been a few minutes, and they could have operated over the fire for 3.5 hours before having to refuel. Refueling would not be a long process at the Chico Airport, and they would have been back on the fire. In 3.5 hours Ravi estimated that EACH aircraft would have been able to drop 40,000 gallons of water.

The Cal Fire helicopters, with a lesser load, were operating along the Skyway from what I saw on TV. Could three Fire Boss aircraft have operated along the escape routes and reduced the loss of life in trapped cars? Who knows? But, the big question - why weren't they allowed to try? I have a feeling that the large air tanker industry has some sort of an inside track.

Day 13 - Was It Even Possible to Evacuate?

Forty-eight hours before the fire, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) sent out warnings of possible power shutdowns to residents in nine counties. Predicted wind speed and other conditions had met their shutdown criteria.

After last year's devastating fires in the Napa area, PG&E set up protocols to conduct public safety power shutoffs in the event of "extreme fire weather danger." Two hours before the fire, a weather station at Jarbo Gap recorded sustained winds of 32 mph with gusts up to 52 mph. PG&E did not shut down any power. It is almost certain that one of their lines started the fire.

I asked Larry Boggs (RDD-63) if the start area was on either of the two surrounding national forests. Larry worked the Plumas for quite some time. His reply: "Pulga is Cal Fire, surrounding area FS, then the fire moved NW onto the Plumas NF, and then quickly onto the Lassen NF, and finally on to State Responsible Area land."

I met my son to talk about evacuation. He is now retired from the Sheriff's Dept. He said that they had to evacuate areas of Paradise during the 2008 fire. At that time, each Deputy had a grid area to cover where they had to personally knock on each door and notify the residents to evacuate.

They then wrapped the mailbox with a colored tape to show that resident or house had been contacted. Ten years later, with all the technology that we now have, that seems like something out of the covered wagon days.

After the 2008 fire, the area was divided into evacuation zones that were supposed to lead to an orderly notification and evacuation. The key problem still remained: There is really only one main road down the hill and that is called the Skyway. However, it does not get to four lanes until you get on the Chico side of Paradise. Feeding into the Skyway are hundreds of very small roads.

Even though Paradise is only 27,000, there are numerous other small communities and a lot of people who just live in the woods - over 50,000 evacuees made it to Chico.

The spread of this fire is almost unheard of - a brief timeline:

0630-Fire started-engines there and have visual at about 0645, but it is across the canyon. It is already 10 acres by 0651-21 minutes.

First evacuation order went out 0723 less than an hour after start.

Reports have fire moving football field per second. Winds at 50 mph in the canyon.

0800-Fire reaches Paradise and evacuation order issued.

1045-Fire had engulfed many of the feeder roads and was within half mile of the Skyway- was 20,000 acres in just 2.5 hours after start. A spot fire a mile ahead of the front was burning on both sides of Clark Road, another main roadway. Any orderly evacuation had broken down, roads jammed and being burned over, people driving into each other, cars being abandoned, etc.

The fire also had spotted a couple miles ahead on the other side of the Skyway and was burning in that canyon starting another large number of people trying to get down the Stilson Canyon Road.

1800-The fire was 55,000 acres. All resources were in a saving people mode. I don't know if any plan would have worked.

I sent a "Letter to the Editor" yesterday about Cal Fire not using the Fire Boss aircraft that were sitting and waiting at the Chico Airport. Just want to explain that there are many tools in the box and that "very large air tankers" from Sacramento aren't always the answer.

Day 14 Camp Fire - Is PTSD Spreading?

Here comes the soapbox - fire - people - where have we gone?
In the news tonight, they interviewed a lady who experienced the Camp Fire. She made it out and didn't look the worse for the wear on TV. In comes the PTSD-Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Now, when she smells smoke she suffers from PTSD.

I look back on my career where my mentors were WWII veterans. The leaders in the California State Athletic Directors Association were men who came out of the war and used the G.I. Bill to get their education-many were the first in their families to go to college. It would be hard to imagine the mental burdens they brought home.

With The Old Breed (Peleliu and Okinawa) by Eugene Sledge should be required reading by everyone in the U.S. Was there ever a battle in WWII that was fought foot by foot, face to face with such intensity and killing as Peleliu?

Did Sledge come home with PTSD? Of course, he certainly had memories. When he enrolled at the Auburn University and was asked by an interviewer what he was good at, he replied, "Killing Japs." However, he never picked up a gun and went hunting again. Sledge ended up with a PhD and retired as a Professor at Alabama College in 1990. He got up and moved on.

My point-we are lucky. We have never experienced what Europe and other parts of the world did during WWII. Every city in some countries looked like, or worse than Paradise.

I really like those who, when interviewed, tell how they are going to get back on their feet and move on. PTSD is on the back porch for them. Even though it has been 73 years, they have the same mindset of the vets of WWII.

A Sergeant in the Paradise Police Dept., and ex-student of mine, said that 17 of 30 staff lost homes, but everyone is on duty.

The rain arrives at 0600 this morning-gentle at this time but predicted to drop 4-6 inches before it is over. The good thing-heaviest rains are predicted for east side and the most difficult part of the fire to access.

From a person working on the fire yesterday: "Made good progress. The steep canyon walls are tough and hazardous to our firefighters."

Had coffee this morning with a good friend, who is retired from Office of Emergency Services (OES). He wanted me to remind all readers that the majority of the engines on these fires come from towns, counties and cities, not Cal Fire. I mentioned what I see as an overload of resources in the community. Having been responsible for handling many of these resources in the past, he said, "This is when you need to start getting people on the road home. Idle hands create problems with crews doing 24 hours on and 24 hours off."

I mentioned that I am really bothered by well-fed fire personnel taking advantage of the free meals offered by restaurants. To me those meals should go to evacuees who have no homes or kitchens. He responded that he always told crews not to eat on the dime of the good people in the community. They are well paid and the restaurants operate on a thin profit margin to begin with.

Eighty-one dead and over 600 missing-this is not going to be a good Thanksgiving down here.

Day 15 - The Governator Returns

During the morning briefing yesterday, a person stepped onto the stage and, without any introduction, immediately received a round of applause from the assembled firefighters. Ex-governor Arnold "I'll be Back" Schwarzenegger came back.

The "Governator" gave an impromptu talk

to the group. A Republican governor in a totally "Blue" state, he was (is?) popular with the working class. He grew up in a middle-class home in Austria and, through total drive and determination, won the Mr. Universe title at age 20. The rest is history if you go to movies and follow politics.

In 1986 he married Maria Shriver, a niece of John F. Kennedy, adding to his potential political presence. He served as governor of California from 2003-2011. "Arnie" was popular-if an 18-wheeler needed to be moved, he climbed in and moved it. Since his messy divorce from Shriver in 2011, he has dropped off the political map. He screwed himself right out of politics.

Arnold was pretty impressive yesterday, completely talking offhand. He immediately bonded with the firefighters countering the earlier message from D.C. about their "forest management skills." He told them that they needed the latest in helicopters and firefighting tools-not rakes for the forest. I felt fired up just listening to him. It was like a coach giving a pep talk.

Went to my dentist yesterday. He told me the fire people wanted the dental records for all his Paradise patients.

During the past 20 years, I've been going to the post office with smokejumper mailing so much that I know the clerks by their first names. I've been trying to stay away since all the Paradise mail has been forwarded to Chico. It has been a mad house at the two local post offices.

Today, I needed to get the Jan. issue of Smokejumper magazine off to our four foreign members.

The lines were long and tempers were short.

We are in a national disaster situation here in Chico. With lines running out the door and people getting frustrated, they only had three of the five windows open. If I were postmaster, I would have all windows open, all the time, and increase the number of hours the facility is open. Meet the needs of the customers for cry'in out loud. Where is the leadership that adapts to the situation? Snow, rain, nor gloom of the night-how about adding fire!

It's Thanksgiving Day. I'll sure have a deeper feeling of thanks as we sit down with family today. Count your blessings.

There will be 830 people going through the ruins today still looking for the 533 on the missing list. Four out of the most recent victims found ranged 72-82, which gives you an idea of things to come as these people work on-a reminder of the amount of retirees who lived on the ridge.

The rain has almost been coming down at a perfect rate-easy and steady-about an inch in the fire area. Containment is now at 90%. The fire started two weeks ago today almost to the minute as I write this.

Day 16 - Aaron Rodgers-A Class Act

Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers is the pride of Chico. If he had a protective line like Tom Brady, the Packers would be in the Super Bowl on a regular basis.

Yesterday, Rodgers donated a million dollars toward helping the victims of the Camp Fire. But that is not the reason I consider him a class act. I don't know Rodgers, as he attended our rival high school on the other side of town. I know him through events related to me by close friends.

I worked and taught with Ric Pit for many years at Chico Jr. H.S. First met Ric when he banged on the locker room door one summer. He was a Vietnam Marine who came home, went to Chico State and received his teaching credential. Well, I hired him-indirectly, as that is something the administration does, but they always asked me whom I wanted to hire, as I was Dept. Chair and Athletic Director.

Years later Ric transferred to our rival high school where he coached Aaron Rodgers at the Jr. Varsity football level. They developed a lasting relationship from that experience.

I continued to coach track for almost 20 years after my retirement. One of my goals was to team up with Ric again and have him come back to our program. That never happened. Rick died of brain cancer before he retired-I feel, a victim of Agent Orange.

Later when Ric's youngest daughter was married, Aaron Rodgers stood in for his old coach and friend. That is why I consider Aaron Rodgers to be a class act.

Yesterday, I mentioned that ex-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger received a warm welcome as he stepped onto the stage at the morning briefing. Dick Rath (MSO-73) sent along a story about Schwarzenegger that will help you to understand his popularity among the firefighters.

From Dick: "I often heard from my friend Rocky Opliger, who was the IC on one of the south zone's Type 1 teams, that it was rare for Arnold not to show up at the Incident that they were managing. Rocky has a great sense of humor and told me the following story.

"He was the Deputy I.C. and assigned to an incident in the south zone. Arnold was the new governor and arrived at the ICP. Upon beginning their introductions, Rocky shook hands with Arnold and then said, ‘Oh, by the way, our I.C. thinks that he can take you!' Arnold grunted and said something like, ‘Oh really.' Of course the I.C. turned all colors and glared at Rocky."

They are starting to let people back into areas that have been closed since the start of the fire. As previously mentioned, there are many "mountain people" who live outside the local communities. Some had supplies and did not evacuate. However, when supplies like gas for their generators was used up, it was necessary for them to get resupplied. The problem is that if you leave the area, they won't let you back.

I've heard a few stories where these folks, who know the "unknown" mountain roads, have been able to get in and out-reminds me of the blockade runners of the civil war. People will make do.

Eight out of the nine schools in Paradise are gone. The high school was the only survivor. I'm sure that many students will be enrolling in other area high schools to finish out the school year.

But there is an unusual assembly scheduled for next week. In another example of generosity, a gentleman from way down in San Diego will give each student (980) and each employee (105) a check for $1,000. He's obviously a person with money, but he looked back at his high school time and said, "It was the last carefree time in my life."

As I watched the local news this morning, I saw young people working in the ruins with the "CCC" logo on the back of their shirts. They are the California Conservation Corps, a program signed into law in 1976 and modeled after the CCC program of the 30s. Governor Jerry Brown envisioned the program as "a combination of Jesuit seminary, Israeli kibbutz, and Marine Corps boot camp."

The California CC program is for young men and women ages 18-25 and involves work on "environment conservation, fire protection and emergency response to natural disasters." They are paid minimum wage. There are close to 2,000 people involved.

Day 17 - Sierra Nevada Brewery

You might think this is a strange way to open today's update. There is more to this story than my love for Sierra Nevada Torpedo IPA. All during the Camp Fire, the Sierra Nevada Tap Room has been serving free meals to evacuees. The brewery, Tap Room and Big Room (live-music venue) are primary stops for many visitors to Chico.

The Sierra Nevada story is a success with a dual meaning described in Ken Grossman's book Beyond the Pale. Founded by Grossman in 1979 in a rented warehouse, he pieced together discarded dairy equipment and scrapyard metal to create the 7th largest brewing company in the U.S., brewing over 1.25 million barrels annually.

Solar panels cover the parking lot, biodiesel for its delivery trucks is made from used cooking oil from the restaurant, ethanol is made from discarded yeast, and spent grain goes to local cattle ranchers. It is said that over 99% of the brewery's solid waste is diverted from the landfill.

Grossman learned needed skills-refrigeration, electrictrity, welding - at our local community college. He recently donated a million dollars to the school to provide free tuition to new students.

This is more than a story of a man who went from having almost nothing to being listed in 2015 as a billionaire.

The Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. has announced that they will brew "Resilience Butte County Proud IPA" and give 100% of the proceeds to Camp Fire relief. Grossman, very influential in the craft beer industry in the U.S., has sent out letters to other brewers inviting them to join and donate 100%.

More than 1000 breweries across the nation responded. Kudos to the craft beer industry in the U.S. When the "Resilience IPA" hits the shelves, here is a chance to do double duty - help the Camp Fire victims and enjoy a fine beer.

Today's incident report shows almost 1,300 personnel on the fire. "The fireline that remains uncontained is located in steep and rugged terrain where it is unsafe for firefighters to access due to the heavy rains." My guess is that the firefighting end of the Camp Fire is done. Now comes the aftermath - where do 3,000 kids go to school? People who worked in Paradise have lost their jobs; people who worked in Chico and lived in Paradise have lost their homes.

Day 18 - Fire Is Out But It Is Not The End

The fire is done but the effects of this fire are going to go on for years and, in some cases, a lifetime. What has been learned, what will change? I know that Cal Fire will use this event to get more firefighters and equipment. They are among the best, but more is not the answer. We need to prevent the disease (fuel reduction) rather than concentrate on treating the disease (fight fire).

Although not related to this fire, the USFS will probably continue their policy of slow initial attack and letting fires burn in the wilderness. Is actually letting fires burn and continually putting more smoke into the atmosphere the best science we have? Besides the millions spent managing these fires, do they ever factor in the future human health costs and the jobs lost in the affected communities?

The Camp Fire had nothing to do with slow Hotshot Crews. However, we had a reputation for producing good people - 23 of them went on to become smokejumpers. Joel jumped at Missoula and West Yellowstone for eight years.

I was finally able to sit down with Joel. I've been hesitant to do so, as people are still in a daze and shock from the devastation.

For almost an hour, I listened to Joel's story. After his years as a smokejumper, he used his smokejumper training and is a contract climber for tree service companies. For those who don't know, climbing and using a chainsaw in a tree requires a tremendous amount of skill and mistakes are unforgiving. I couldn't believe that he is still climbing at his age. He said he loves it-probably will die in a tree eight stories above the ground.

On Nov. 8 Joel went to work in Chico at about 0630 - the time the Camp Fire started. He got a call from his wife at 0700 telling him he needed to come home as a fire had started in Pulga. In his mind, Joel thought Pulga is a long ways away - do I really need to come home? He did. He and his wife, Cheryl, loaded her car and his truck with what they considered important. How does one determine what is important after 23 years worth of building a home? Joel is a woodworker, Cheryl a quilter - years of crafted work and tools had to be left behind.

Joel hooked up his travel trailer to the back of his work truck. By this time it was 0900 and the fire had already gotten to their area. How could something move that fast? They needed to move quickly. Cheryl took one road and Joel, trailer in tow, took the other. Cheryl took the road that wasn't jammed and made a good exit towards Chico.

Joel took another road, one that he thought would be a good way out with the trailer in tow. He soon hit the jammed roads as smaller feeder roads fed into one of the three exits down the hill to Chico.

Soon the fire was burning on both sides of the road and people were leaving their cars and running down the road. Joel was yelling at them to stay in their cars, as that was the best way to survive a situation where fire overruns the road. It was useless, as total panic had set in. The people who abandoned their vehicles added to the traffic jam, as they did not move them off the road.

Joel was trapped by two abandoned cars - one on each side of the road. He forced his way between them. He was moving "one foot at a time." A young man pounded on his window, "Hey Dude, your trailer is on fire." Moving between the abandoned cars had started the fire. He knew he had to get rid of the trailer. The slope on the side of the road caused a jam in the release mechanism - Joel said he actually was very calm at this time. All the time there were propane tanks exploding around him from the houses that were being consumed by fire. The electric jack on the trailer worked and Joel was able to get rid of the trailer and his propane tanks. He also took his 5-gallon gas cans, which he used for his tree work, out of his truck. Didn't need another explosion. After hours and many blocked roads, he made it to Chico. Cheryl hadn't heard from him for hours and thought he might be dead. I listened to Joel's story. This could be a piece in a magazine - there are hundreds with similar stores. John Maclean (Assoc.) could write about the Camp Fire for his next book.

After about 90 minutes, I had to break in. Told Joel that the National Smokejumper Association does not forget Smokejumpers. When I moved a check from the Good Samaritan Fund across the table, all the pent up emotion and stress came out. Tears happened.

That's what the NSA is all about. We are there to help our brothers and sisters in need. Thanks to all of you for making this possible.


It has been five weeks since the start of the Camp Fire. I was able to sit down with Deb Yoder (RDD-00) today. She is the last jumper on the list to be contacted. Deb lost her home and everything in it. Today, she was working with her car insurance to see if she could buy her car back.

As she drove into the parking lot, I knew who was behind the wheel. The back window was sprayed with a large orange "X." I'm guessing that was done by people searching cars for bodies.

Deb was in Micronesia working on a medical project at the time of the fire. Even though her house was "fire wise," it burned. She plans to rebuild. I gave her a check from the Good Sam Fund and told her I would stay in contact for as long as it takes.

We have to remember that this whole process for the three jumpers who lost everything will take months, maybe a couple years. Whatever the case, the NSA will be there.

We, the NSA, have taken care of immediate financial needs. In months to come, when furniture will be needed, Fred Rohrbach has that covered. Lee Lipscomb (MSO-58) has offered legal help if that would ever be needed. Lee is a partner in a large legal firm in Los Angeles and his son, Steve, would represent our jumpers. People who jumped during their college years and went on to successfully establish themselves in the different aspects of our society are the thread that makes the NSA so strong.

The Camp Fire will be repeated if we don't come up with a new way to deal with wildfire. We can only hope that this event was a learning situation.