Fire presents dilemma: stay or go?

Evacuation plan seems as perilous as the Humboldt blaze

FEAR IGNITED<br>A view from Clark Road last Thursday afternoon shows Paradise in peril.

A view from Clark Road last Thursday afternoon shows Paradise in peril.

Photo By Alan Sheckter

Jaime O’Neill, a frequent contributor to the CN&R, lives on the Ridge with his wife, Karen.

“Living on the edge” has been one of the more annoying popular clichés of the past dozen years or so, though it is usually employed to describe sky divers and other thrill seekers. The real edge-dwellers, however, have been those mostly quiet, mostly aging people who made their home in a place that is a tinderbox for five or six months a year, a place that has limited ingress and egress, with too few roads to serve a population that has swelled and spread to every little nook and cranny over the past couple of decades.

I refer, of course, to Paradise, and beyond. As I write these words, Paradise is imperiled, and contrary to its slogan, it is considerably less than its name implies. It is, in fact, a bit hellish up here on this ridge on Friday, the third day of the Humboldt Fire, the name affixed to the long-dreaded nightmare that has haunted the sleep of most residents of this place.

Though the air is notably clearer than it is down in south Chico and over in Durham, the big fire, so long feared, is threatening, has already taken some homes and injured some firefighters.

In Paradise, and farther up the hill, past the Magalia Dam, there is a sense of suppressed fear from the supermarkets to the service stations. People speak in low tones, make jokes intended to ease the tension. The few traffic lights on the upper Skyway are not functioning, so traffic is wary, and no one knows for sure just what the situation will be should they try to make their way out.

There are too many people; too few roads; too much fuel for the fire. Everyone is subject to the wind. So long as the air is smoke-free, the wind is favoring the residents of the Ridge, but few forces are more fickle than wind. Everyone knows a shift in wind speed and wind direction can mean the difference between safety and conflagration, even between life and death.

There are more people—far more people—living in Magalia than there are in Oroville. They’re hard to see, all those people, because they’re sequestered back in the woods, hidden from view. Some of those people prefer it that way because they are engaged in activities they’d rather not advertise—those meth labs and marijuana patches that tend to pop up wherever the edge is found, from Humboldt County to Hunter’s Point, and all points east.

The population has swelled up here in Paradise and Magalia, spreading over the ridges because homes have been cheaper than down on the flat, zoning has been virtually nonexistent, and there was, always, the lure of the woods, an illusion that the life up here is wilder and freer than it is where the tracts sprawl more visibly than they do where development is hidden by pines.

The people who have constituted that population growth now are fleeing their homes and confronting the results of poor planning and inaction that have left them all so vulnerable.

For 22 years, the congressman who represents the district where the fire now burns has done virtually nothing to address the issue of escape routes, a persistent act of nonfeasance that now seems to trace the edge of criminal negligence, an irresponsible and unresponsive lassitude in the face of obvious constituent need. And the supervisor elected to serve the people of the Paradise ridge has been equally lax in his efforts to address the issue, though in his recent re-election campaign, he was careful to take credit for garnering some $13 million in funds toward the time when construction on such a road out might begin.

There will be time for recriminations and fault-finding after the smoke has cleared. In the meantime, the lack of information represents a kind of cruelty that exceeds the equally cruel but more random fates represented by sparks borne by wind.

The absence of information is yet another case of human neglect because it would seem that the public airwaves might be used more effectively during times of such emergency. The puerility of our daily TV and radio fare stands out forcefully when citizens are seeking vital information and finding instead the usual commercials for Viagra, the nattering of the political pundits, and the radio ravings of the evangelicals whose shearing of their sheep continues even as fire threatens Paradise.

There were exceptions to the media failures, of course. The editor of the Paradise Post worked tirelessly to get information to readers online, and KPAY finally suspended its regular programming and turned to disseminating fire and evacuation updates, though the commercials that punctuated the call-ins and the news bulletins seemed oddly irrelevant to the matters at hand. also was a go-to site for information.

But it sometimes seemed that the only advantage of modern technology was to sometimes spread misinformation or outdated information faster than it would have been spread five or six hundred years ago.

It seemed we hadn’t come all that far when it came to confronting one of the fabled Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Fear ruled then. And now.

The question was omnipresent: to stay or to go. Those in Lower Paradise had no choice; in blacked-out then voluntarily evacuated West Paradise, little choice; elsewhere, a hard choice.

Stay, and you risked being swept up in what could readily become a lethal firestorm. A crown fire over the ridge would suck oxygen from the forest floor, and the abundance of fuel for such a fire would make a nightmare death for those who failed to heed the dangers. All those full gas tanks would add to the conflagration, of course, as would the propane tanks and other manmade sources of fuel that would join with the natural combustibles we’d chosen to live among for their scenic attributes. So staying was a dubious option.

But going was an equally dubious choice, because once you’d locked your house and hit the road, you were going to find it difficult (if not impossible) to get back, and there was no way to know whether you might get stuck, dangerously stuck, on the one road out: Pentz toward Highway 70, a road not that far from where the fire was still only 10 percent controlled. By leaving your home, where the power was still on and the air was still clear, you might be choosing to exchange the frying pan for the fire, almost literally.

It was a paralyzing choice, so lots of people sat still, not wanting to create more traffic for those who might be more immediately imperiled.

That is what I am currently doing, at 11 a.m. on Friday the 13th, an ominous date and a perilous time. I am at this keyboard, jotting these observations, trying to decide to stay or go. By now, as you read this, you will know better than I know now which choice was the better part of valor.

My wife calls from the other room. She says we should go. My daughter calls from Sacramento. She says we should go. My mother calls from Illinois. She says we should go. My best friend, sick with cancer, calls from south of Stockton. He says we should go.

And so I will press “send” to launch this document in the direction of my editor at the News & Review, and then I will begin the flight from fear and fire.