The Concow conflagration
Ten weeks after the fire, residents struggle to recover
This much, you probably know: A huge, fast-moving fire devastated the mountain community of Concow, a few miles east of Paradise. Uncounted hundreds of residents became homeless, most in a matter of minutes in the pre-dawn hours of July 8. When the fire, one in what was dubbed the Butte Lightning Complex, was finally controlled on July 29, thousands of acres were burned, including about 200 “dwellings” of all types (including vehicles and tents).
This, you may not know: Only one person died—a man who may have resisted evacuation until it was too late—but all the survivors found their lives fractured.
This, you probably don’t know: Ten weeks later, some fire refugees continue to harbor in friends’ homes. Many are overwhelmed or in despair, most are consumed by dirty, sweaty labor on their lands, and all are financially decimated and embroiled in paperwork, regulatory minutiae and community meetings.
But that is mere purgatory. The approach to hell is through the formerly verdant hillsides and meadows, now totally bereft of live trees for miles in some areas of the Concow basin, the ash six inches deep, the wild animals gone farther afield to find water, food and forest.
Hell itself is returning day after day to your property to sift through charred trees and metal, trying to find someone to log it or haul it away and wrestling with county codes. The depth of hell is waking in the middle of the night, remembering yet another fragile material possession that you will never see again, irreplaceable and invested with our memories and dreams—your son’s baby book, your collection of 242 antique frying pans, a hillside of trees.
The vocabulary of your pain is your own private language, and you speak it even when you sleep. What is no more is always there. You have to hold unequivocal loss in one hand, the life that keeps running in you in the other.
Some folks had insurance. Some couldn’t get covered. Some lost their homes. Others lost all their tools and inventory. Some kept the house, lost all the out-buildings and every tree and vehicle on the property. Many saw their entire neighborhood reduced to black and white, not a home standing.
In the diverse social mix that is Concow, the survivors include libertarians and conservatives, Grange members and marginalized alcoholics, county employees, retirees, loggers, an ex-Chico city councilman, professionals and the illiterate. Violent crime has been uncommon, with people getting along amazingly well. They will all tell you they’ve loved living in Concow. That love of the land has been the community grace note. Now, 10 weeks later, they ponder how to rebuild their land and community.
When 59-year-old Margaret Huff heard acorns hitting the side of her house “so hard I thought someone was shooting bullets” at approximately 1:30 in the morning on July 8, she told her husband, “T.K., you better get up.” She walked outside, where the cement on her driveway was so hot it was difficult to stand on.
Woken from sleep, T.K. Huff, who is 61, came out on crutches, his leg prosthesis left by his bed, and they watched as flames a quarter- to a half-mile away suddenly shot skyward, and the landscape nearby “seemed to explode,” Margaret recounted, remnant fear still in her voice weeks later.
“A tree in our back yard caught fire, and I just fell to my knees and started crying. My husband threw me the keys, and I grabbed the birdcage and the cat jumped on my chest. He left in his underwear; he didn’t even put his shoes on. I swear I thought we weren’t gonna get out.”
Before retiring that night, the Huffs had unpacked all the valuables that they had taken from their home when CalFire had asked them to evacuate two weeks earlier, on June 21, when lightning strikes in the Sierra ignited numerous fires north of Concow and in other mountain locations. Concow residents were allowed to return home on June 29, and most had been home a week before they were forced from their beds in the wee hours of July 8.
That night—in a second, much hastier evacuation—the Huffs left behind the family Bible, T.K.'s extensive gun collection, oil portraits of their children, Margaret’s grandmother’s heirlooms, legal documents, 13 vehicles, a canoe and dinghy, all their tools, and all of T.K.'s medical equipment, upon which this unilateral, above-the-knee amputee is dependent.
Driving down Concow Road in the smoky night, they passed at least 30 fire vehicles heading north, toward the fire. “We were the only ones in our lane going out,” Margaret said. They arrived in Paradise around 2:30.
Later they would discover that every tree on their 4.9 acres, their three-bedroom mobile home, another trailer, and several outbuildings and shops were burned to ash and whatever metal scraps remained.
Melissa Hill and John Jewett—he a lifelong Concow resident and she a “local” since 1973—also had been home only a week after evacuating on June 21. For three nights, Jewett had gone out on his porch at bedtime and noted that the wind was increasing. Both had a sense of impending doom but thought that “everything was under control, since the county had allowed us to return,” remembered Hill.
At 1:15 a.m. on July 8, Hill answered her phone to hear her neighbor reporting that an official had advised him to leave his home because of fire. At 1:30 they received a reverse-911 call advising them to evacuate, and at 1:45, a uniformed official came to their door to inform them that they had less than an hour to vacate their house.
When they drove away at 3 in the morning, burning embers were falling on their property, and they could see “that horrible glow to the northeast.” As they drove out on Concow Road, sharing their lane with bumper-to-bumper evacuating traffic, they passed 30 or 40 fire trucks coming in. The smoke was so thick that they could hardly see the car in front of them, Hill remembered.
The Jewett-Hill property was insured. Their manufactured home survived, and after several weeks in a Chico hotel, they have returned home to “a moonscape.” Sixty percent of the trees on their almost five acres burned, and 100 percent of the pine trees. All vegetation and shade around their home is gone.
They have already replaced their air conditioner and well pump. Their roof needs to be inspected, and Hill said they will wait until spring to replace the carpets, because of the incessant ash and dirt that enter from the now unfamiliar environment outside. Every other night, Hill puts a fresh pillowcase on her pillow so she can go to sleep without the smell of smoke in her nose.
Five out-buildings, including a shop, tools and five cords of firewood, are gone, as well as 25 years’ worth of teaching supplies accumulated by Hill, an early childhood educator.
Although Jewett and Hill appear to be progressing well, their days are fraught with minor and major difficulties. A typical list of current priorities for fire survivors includes:
• find a temporary home;
• arrange for hazardous-materials cleanup by the county;
• request building permits;
• confer with insurance companies;
• sink new utility poles;
• arrange for logging of burned trees;
• get the well and septic systems functioning;
• haul eligible debris into waste bins;
• fell trees for erosion control;
• attempt to secure tools onsite;
• replace items (as basic as pants and a shovel);
• make seemingly ceaseless trips to town to meet with county officials or to gather supplies.
It is grubby, painstaking, expensive and heart-rending work, and nothing goes as smoothly as this list might imply. Many residents, of course, continue to work full-time jobs or try to restart their businesses.
“God bless those Baptists!” say Melissa Hill, Margaret Huff, and many other fire survivors. Members of Southern Baptist Disaster Relief Volunteers (SBDRV) have worked for eight weeks with many residents to clean up and log their properties.
Concow was the recipient of a serendipitous blessing in that Pastor Doug Crowder, of Magalia Pines Baptist Church, is also an administrator with SBDRV. His church members and the SBDRV crews provided feeding stations in June and July and on-the-ground labor since June to the Paradise and Concow fire survivors. The Magalia church, which has covered more than half of the expenses for these projects, with the Southern Baptist Convention funding the balance, additionally houses and feeds the volunteers and pays for fuel and other cleanup expenses.
Crowder reported that volunteers, many of them retired people, had come from as far away as North Carolina and included an “80-year-old lady” who works on a cleanup crew in Concow. “But we’re overwhelmed,” Crowder said. “This is the largest cleanup we have ever done. … Our volunteers are wearing out. Many of them have developed lung symptoms,” presumably from inhaling ash.
The Yankee Hill Fire Safe Council was contacted for this story. Susie Heffernan, vice-chairwoman of the council, declined to comment regarding the organization’s recovery efforts at this time. The organization has stated publicly that it is raising money to help locals buy “Concow cabins,” similar to the Katrina cabins designed after Hurricane Katrina.
Meanwhile, fire survivors live with friends or on their burned home sites and try to hold onto their sanity. Like Hill, many would add “cry” to the to-do list—it is an inescapable necessity.
How do they cope? “You keep going,” Hill said, “and look for any tangible signs of progress. Maybe you see green shoots at the base of your oak tree, maybe some bureaucrat returned your phone call. Visit with a neighbor—share tears and beers.”
Both Hill and Margaret Huff cried occasionally as they told me their stories. Numerous others I spoke with over the past 10 weeks—men and women—stalled in mid-sentence, walked away or stood helpless as their eyes reddened and welled over with tears. Hill and other residents believe the county should be providing case management to help the many survivors who say they continue to feel overwhelmed and confused regarding how to obtain assistance and comply with county requirements.
Concow Phoenix Project and North Valley Catholic Social Services (NVCSS) have offered mental-health information and counseling to Concow residents. The $10,000 grant provided by Catholic Charities to NVCSS to provide psychotherapy for survivors of the Humboldt and Lightning Complex fires will be spent within two months, reported Laura Best, clinical supervisor at NVCSS. She noted that NVCSS now has a wait list for these services.
Currently, most residents are occupied with debris cleanup and clearing burned trees. Steve Rodowick, who runs the Butte County bin program, estimates that the county will lend 90 large Dumpster bins to residents. Like many others, Jewett and Hill discovered that the county could not provide them with a free debris bin because their dwelling had not burned down, a criterion imposed by the state Office of Emergency Services. Their insurance covered less than half the cost of renting the necessary bins.
Nor is it easy to remove the burned trees. Hill and Jewett contracted with a local logging company, but it eventually could not honor the terms because too much lumber was being cut in Concow weekly. They have since found another logger.
Sierra Pacific Industries, the sole lumber company buying Concow timber, is limiting the amount of wood that it will buy each week. The SPI mills are already full of wood from the company’s own burned land, reported Dave Whittier, a state registered forester and the owner of Whittier Consulting Forestry, which is currently logging some residents’ properties.
Whittier pointed out that drought-induced pine-beetle infestations are causing pine wood to rot within weeks rather than months, and mills will not take wood that shows the blue stain that indicates the first stage of this rot. As a result, many residents will not be able to find loggers willing to take out their dead pines before they begin to rot.
Whittier added that “blue stain” wood carries the larvae of various beetles and, if not kiln dried, can continue to infest the lumber of homes built with it for decades, causing structural weakness.
The alternative for Concow landowners is to chip the wood on site. Covanta Energy’s cogeneration plant in Oroville, which converts wood chips to electricity, plans to start taking Concow wood in the next few weeks, reported plant manager Francisco Barriga. Assuming Covanta’s price is adequate, Whittier believes that chipping and hauling companies may find it economically feasible to remove wood from Concow by chipping it this winter. He noted that the BTUs in standing dead wood decrease after a year.
Some residents and fire restoration experts predict that the forest environment will return to native oaks and manzanita, until the natural forest succession cycle evolves to predominantly conifers. Many predict that two or three human generations will pass before Concow’s forests return to their pre-fire, forested state. Completely burned deciduous trees were, in fact, starting to sprout green shoots several weeks after the fire, indicating live roots. Whittier believes that resprouting oaks will remain bushy and could create fire hazards, although other forest experts disagree.
Hill came home from work last week to see that logging on her property had begun. In the largest cedar stump on her land, 3 1¼2 feet in diameter, she counted 108 rings.
Butte County will waive the well, septic and building permits for fire survivors whose lots, easements and prior structures were legal, if they were uninsured. District 1 Supervisor Bill Connelly says the board is undecided on whether the county will forgive the permit fees for those who resided in unpermitted residences prior to the fire. “I’m leaning toward not waiving the fees,” Connelly said in a Sept. 2 phone interview. “We may waive them on a case-by-case basis.”
Connelly noted that the county is waiting for President Bush to decide whether to extend the disaster designation for Butte County to the earlier date of May 22, which would allow greater options for fire survivors, such as low-interest loans and additional county funds. In that case, county supervisors will be discussing whether to waive, discount or allow timed payments of fees for those with unpermitted, burned homes as well.
Sang Kim, county deputy administrative officer, noted that as of Aug. 20 the county had incurred $4.7 million in costs for running its Emergency Operations Center and for fire recovery. They will be paid from its discretionary budget.
Concow residents since 1989, the Huffs now live in a 25-foot trailer, “the cheapest we could find in Paradise,” said Margaret. They received $300 from the Red Cross for rent but now are trying to make do on their meager fixed income.
T.K., who lost his right leg above the knee in a tractor accident seven years ago, has not yet ascertained how to replace his medical equipment. He has fallen several times in his unfamiliar surroundings and is now experiencing complications of his pre-existing medical problems.
The Huffs’ mobile home was built in 1966. For $500 per year, they could have purchased home insurance, but it would have covered only $5,000 in damages, and most of that would have been for their shop, Margaret said, so the policy did not seem worthwhile. They did have legal permits before the fire and, like most, hope to rebuild.
Ten weeks after, the effects of the Concow fire remain everpresent and inescapable. It is difficult to imagine, in the scale of human time, hills covered with oaks and a rebuilt, fire-safe community.
Margaret Huff, like so many others, hopes and prays for gentle winter rains, no flooding, and a return of the green.