The town of Paradise, California, is becoming a leader in postdisaster recovery planning driven by necessity after the devastating 2018 Camp fire and by residents’ commitment to return to their home community. With a pre-fire population of more than 26,000, Paradise is in Butte County about 90 miles northeast of Sacramento in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, where almost all of the land area is classified as “very high” risk of wildfire.
The Camp fire started November 8, 2018, burned for two weeks, and was contained on November 25, thanks to the efforts of more than 1,000 firefighting personnel. Before the Camp fire, many fire experts recognized Paradise for having best practices, such as a wildland- urban interface (WUI) code and a robust evacuation plan. Unfortunately, the Camp fire “just didn’t give people a chance,” says Thomas Cova, wildfire evacuation expert. “It was a direct hit, [igniting just 10 miles northeast], and even when the ignition started, there already wasn’t enough time to get everyone out. It was a dire scenario.”
The Camp fire took the lives of 85 Paradise residents, displaced tens of thousands of people, destroyed 19,000 homes, businesses, and other structures, and caused smoke damage in 1,300 of the remaining 1,800 structures. In a survey as part of the recovery planning process, more than 65 percent of residents indicated that they plan to return to Paradise.
The official town-led recovery planning process began in January 2019. It is funded by the Butte Strong Fund of the North Valley Community Foundation, of which the local, privately owned Sierra Nevada Brewery is a significant contributor, and by a U.S. Economic Development Association grant. Paradise’s recovery process and resulting long-term recovery plan incorporates many best practices in wildfire resilience, documents the priorities and recommendations widely supported by residents, and may serve as a template for other wildfire-affected communities.
WILDFIRE RESILIENCE STRATEGIES
The process of developing the plan was as much a part of the community’s recovery as the resulting recovery priorities. The town is leading the overall recovery effort and hired Urban Design Associates (UDA) to conduct a community engagement process to inform the long-term recovery plan, known as the “community vision.” Originally, UDA planned a three-step engagement process. Principal Megan O’Hara says the town and UDA quickly “discovered that we needed a step zero—relieving pressure.” In the first step, the team helped clearly communicate the existing requirements for rebuilding individuals’ homes. The following process then moved into listening, testing ideas, and deciding on recommendations and recovery projects.
The engagement team began by building relationships with local stakeholders and distributing relevant information about rebuilding procedures to help the community and notify it of the planning process. UDA launched the “Make it Paradise” website to act as a central repository of information. The town hired a public relations firm to lead the messaging and to manage the website. The engagement team created social media hashtags like “#paradisestrong” and “#paradiseproud” and the slogan “Uniting, Growing, Rebuilding” to promote the effort.
The process officially launched in February 2019 at a regularly scheduled council meeting with about 550 participants. Attendees participated in small facilitated discussions of 15 to 20 people, reporting on the top strengths of Paradise, weaknesses (before or after the fire), and opportunities as a result of the disaster.
Over the next five months, UDA hosted listening sessions and conducted one survey in which local participants provided feedback on Paradise’s strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities. Most meetings were hosted locally and in person, with one virtual meeting for those displaced out of the immediate area. The engagement team recruited about 40 volunteer California State University, Chico, staff and faculty to receive facilitation training and then to help facilitate the listening sessions.
UDA completed the next step, testing ideas, on the basis of the information gathered at the listening sessions and the survey results. “Every time someone said something in any small group meeting, it was written down as a discrete comment,” says O’Hara. UDA counted the themes and organized the answers into like responses. Twenty-one themes rose to the top and were grouped into five categories.
Those five categories are the pillars of the long-term recovery plan’s vision to make Paradise a safer, more welcoming, stronger, better, and greener community. Residents and stakeholders helped define the plan’s 40 recovery projects, each with a suggested recovery priority, cost estimate, a potential project advocate, and potential funding sources. UDA also evaluated and recommended to Town Council 20 potential additional building-design standards to expand Paradise’s existing WUI code and improve fire resilience.
OUTCOME AND LESSONS LEARNED
Over the course of five months, the recovery planning team hosted seven listening sessions, which were attended by 300 to 800 attendees each. The virtual session drew about 50 participants. The team also provided updates on the planning process and other relevant information to 15,000 residents who signed up to receive email updates. Though the community vision exemplifies many aspects of new urbanism, it is meant first and foremost to reflect community goals and priorities, which were unique to Paradise. For example, “a walkable downtown was one of the visions we heard from community members,” says O’Hara.
“We’re looking to focus on wildfire safety and how it pertains to housing.” – Susan Hartman, Community Development Director, Paradise
Residents also prioritized improved evacuation routes. The “make it safer” pillar includes a recovery project to widen roads and build a pedestrian and bike system that doubles as secondary access/egress for emergency vehicles when needed—an example of an adaptation that leverages critical infrastructure to double as social (or community) infrastructure.
The Paradise Town Council adopted the long-term recovery plan in June 2019 and intends to use the document as a decision-making tool for lining up funding for about 40 recovery projects. The council also adopted seven new recommendations to its WUI code intended to make future residential and commercial properties more wildfire resilient.
In addition to continuing the recovery operations and necessary fundraising, Paradise is organizing for a general plan update in 2021. “We’re looking to focus on wildfire safety and how it pertains to housing,” says Susan Hartman, community development director.