A matchstick

Concerns about Bidwell Park surface in the wake of catastrophic Nor Cal wildfires

“It’s the city’s biggest asset, and it’s also its biggest liability.”

“It’s the city’s biggest asset, and it’s also its biggest liability.”

Photo by Kevin Fuller

Interim Chico Fire Chief Aaron Lowe remembers Aug. 26, 2016, as a typically warm day toward the end of a long, parched Chico summer, just ripe for wildfire. At 3:25 p.m., the Chico Fire Department received a call that a blaze had broken out south of Forest Ranch. Lowe, who was a division chief at the time, was dispatched and put in charge of command on-site, along with a commander from Cal Fire.

“The trees and the brush and the grass were all igniting and catching on fire quickly,” Lowe recalled during a recent interview.

The fire jumped Highway 32 and made its way into Upper Bidwell Park. Firefighters began evacuating the park and formed a line to protect the nearby Humboldt Highlands subdivision. The fire department—which, as part of the city’s Emergency Operations Plan, is co-lead of emergency services in the city—braced for the worst.

“We had to get in front of it to make sure it didn’t kill anybody,” Lowe said.

Firefighters battled what was dubbed the Santos Fire for about 10 hours—containing it to nearly 90 acres of open space near Santos Ranch Road. Fortunately, no structures were lost.

But concerns about a blaze similar to the Santos Fire tearing through Bidwell Park and making its way into residential areas have surfaced in the wake of the series of Northern California wildfires that killed 42 people and destroyed more than 8,400 structures. Of that spate was the especially catastrophic Tubbs Fire in Napa, Sonoma and Lake counties, where at least 22 people perished and more than 5,000 structures burned to the ground. Cal Fire is calling it the most destructive wildfire in California history in terms of property damage.

While the cause of the Tubbs Fire has not yet been officially determined, dry conditions in the region made it especially vulnerable.

“We have those situations and those conditions right here in Chico,” said Mark Stemen, professor of geography and planning at Chico State. “We have houses up into the [wildland]-urban interface, but we also have wildlands that penetrate pretty deep into the community. Bidwell Park runs all the way downtown. A fire in that [area] could just come down into the town—bad conditions, hot day, winds—it’d be catastrophic.”

Stemen pointed to climate change as a major factor in the increase in fire activity and intensity statewide. He said warmer temperatures and drier climates create more fuel, and that Chico’s crown jewel, Bidwell Park, is just as susceptible to a potential fire as the regions charred in the North Bay Area.

He said climate change is affecting the trees in the park, drying them out to the point of killing them. The park is also seeing more bark beetle infestations as a result, which kills the trees. Grass and brush are becoming drier, too, essentially creating a tinderbox running right into the heart of downtown.

Stemen’s class is conducting research on the effects of climate change on the city, from a planning perspective, and how that could affect wildfires in the area. Their findings, which they will present to the City Council in December, will be the basis for the city’s hazard mitigation plan, which it must finalize by 2019. A state law passed in 2015, Senate Bill 379, requires municipalities to adopt such plans, which must identify risks posed by climate change.

Meanwhile, Lowe said the fire department has been working with the Park Division on a fuel-mitigation plan. He hopes a combination of controlled burns, along with manually removing brush and grass from the park, will help lower the risk. He said the plan is in the works and wasn’t sure when it might be implemented.

For Lowe, fuel mitigation is just one part of the equation in preventing a large fire from spreading through the park and into adjacent neighborhoods and downtown. He pointed to the city closing two fire stations in the last year: Station 3, which was located near the airport, and Station 6, which was west of Highway 32.

He also noted the dearth of personnel. The department shrunk during the latest budget session, but it was primarily impacted by the loss of nine firefighters who were temporarily funded by the federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant.

“There’s a staffing and resource shortage there,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of depth in our resources, due to the cuts.”

City Councilman Randall Stone says it’s not just Bidwell Park that’s a major fire hazard. He pointed to the arundo grass in Little Chico Creek as a major concern. Two years ago, at his urging, the council voted to allocate $1,500 to the Butte Environmental Council to write a grant application for eradicating the arundo grass. The effort was not successful.

“It doesn’t take a genius to go down there and look and see the fire danger in there,” Stone said. “This is a clear and present danger.”

Stemen, president of BEC’s board of directors, hasn’t given up on the effort to eradicate the vegetation and he’s hoping the study he’s conducting on climate change will convince the city to take more action in cleaning up some of the brush and grass.

Stemen says much of the focus of his class’ research thus far has been on the park, as it makes up such a large part of the city and presents so much fire danger.

“It’s the city’s biggest asset, and it’s also its biggest liability,” he said.