Are There Ways To Make Towns Less Vulnerable To Wildfires? NPR's Ari Shapiro talks with Los Angeles Times reporter Paige St. John about how Paradise, Calif., residents practiced fire evacuation drills, but given a population boom, the plans were inadequate.

Are There Ways To Make Towns Less Vulnerable To Wildfires?

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The town of Paradise, Calif., is in the Sierra Nevada foothills, an area with a long history of fires. The city has practiced evacuations for years, as Mayor Jody Jones told us on this program yesterday.


JODY JONES: We even took one of our peak morning hours and made the road a contraflow and - so we could show our citizens how it was going to work. What happened though is typically you are evacuating a zone or two or three zones. You're not evacuating an entire town all at the same time.

SHAPIRO: Some of the dozens of people who died in the fire were trying to evacuate Paradise. Many others are still missing. LA Times reporter Paige St. John has been writing about Paradise's preparations for wildfires. Welcome to the program.


SHAPIRO: How well did people in this area understand the threat of a catastrophic fire and the likelihood that what might happen?

ST JOHN: Paradise residents understood the threat just tremendously because they have to leave town almost every other year for some evacuation. There were tremendous fires in 2008 that buffeted the town and actually came right up to city limits and destroyed some homes. But there have also been evacuations - three other years of the evacuation since then.

SHAPIRO: So if people had awareness and they had experience, where was the flaw?

ST JOHN: The problem in Paradise is that you can't get out. It's basically a town that was created during the gold mining era on a ridge with two roads out and, up until recently, a dirt road that came through the forest off the north side of town that has since been paved. And things have not changed in terms of evacuation routes greatly in Paradise since its housing boom in the 1960s and the 1970s.

So it doesn't matter that residents were given warning or not given a warning or were aware of the threat or not aware of the threat. Once they needed to move and you had an entire town that needed to get out all at once, the roads quickly turned into parking lots.

SHAPIRO: So on the one hand, people were very aware of the threat of fire and the potential need for evacuation. But on the other hand, the city was allowed to grow enormously in ways that made evacuation close to impossible.

ST JOHN: Right. And it's a problem that's baked into the town. The growth came in the '60s in the '70s. So Paradise tripled in population between 1960 and 1980 census. And that's when the problem was created. Everything they've done since then can't undo that problem.

SHAPIRO: You report that even up to this year, the town was planning an expansion of more than 20 percent.


SHAPIRO: They wanted to put in senior citizen housing that would have had a lot of new residents. It doesn't seem like anyone was saying, hey, if we grow this population, we might not be able to get out in case of an emergency.

ST JOHN: There was a grand jury report after the 2008 fire that called for that kind of discussion with any new development that goes into Paradise. And it is included in the county's zoning and growth plans. For instance, it calls for studies of evacuation routes. But I don't see any effort to actually build those roads.

SHAPIRO: After all the research you've done, what's the biggest lesson that you take away from what happened in Paradise?

ST JOHN: Well, there's a lot of discussion about forestry management and building hardened homes and early warning systems. Those are the three things that are talked about a lot in California. But I think there's a need to take a lesson from hurricane states like Florida. Those are states that have already dealt with this and addressed the need for evacuation any time they do zoning or growth plans. And that's not been done in California yet. There's a note in this 2008 grand jury report about Paradise's looming disaster. And it notes that all of the other forest towns in the foothills face the same dilemma.

SHAPIRO: Paige St. John, thank you so much for talking with us.

ST JOHN: Sure.

SHAPIRO: She's a reporter for The LA Times.

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