By Soumya Karlamangla
New York Times
More than the videos of flying embers and glowing red skies, the images that still haunt me from the 2018 Camp fire are of cars lined up along exit routes, as people desperate to escape discovered they were trapped.
The fire destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people, becoming the deadliest fire in California history. It’s a tragedy that raises an important question as California’s fire season appears to worsen each year: Can we predict the next Paradise?
There are a few ways to think about this, from looking at a region’s risk of megafires to its number of evacuation routes.
California officials rank an area’s wildfire risk — based on its vegetation, fire history and topography — as either moderate, high or very high. More than 2.7 million Californians live in parts of the state deemed very high risk, painted in bright red on the state’s wildfire danger map.
“These designations have proven eerily predictive about some of the state’s most destructive wildfires in recent years,” reads a 2019 analysis put together by several California newsrooms, pointing out that “nearly all of Paradise is colored in bright red.”
California is home to more than 75 communities, including Paradise, where at least 90 percent of residents live in these very high-risk swaths, the analysis found. The extremely fire-prone towns include:
— Rancho Palos Verdes, Calabasas, La Cañada Flintridge, Palos Verdes Estates and Malibu in Los Angeles County
— South Lake Tahoe and Pollock Pines in El Dorado County (both were evacuated in recent weeks)
— Lake Arrowhead in San Bernardino County
— Kensington in Contra Costa County
But there’s more to the story. This list covers places where a fire is most likely to break out, but it doesn’t reflect what happens once one does.
There were six exit routes in Paradise, but the fast-moving fire closed some and mass evacuations created traffic jams on the roads that were usable.
(It’s important to note that while traffic slowed evacuations in Paradise, fewer than 10 people who died were in their cars apparently trying to flee, according to an investigation by the Butte County district attorney. Most of those killed were older people in their homes.)
Across California, approximately 350,000 people live in fire zones that have no more evacuation routes per person than Paradise, according to the 2019 analysis. The places with relatively few exit routes include:
— Highland Park, Eagle Rock, Pacific Palisades and Rancho Palos Verdes in Los Angeles County
— Newbury Park, Oak Park and Moorpark in Ventura County
— Carmel Valley and Jamesburg in Monterey County
— Jamul, Ramona and Scripps Ranch in San Diego County
— Big Bear, Minnelusa and Sugarloaf in San Bernardino County
Still, there are some important caveats here.
Just because there are exit routes doesn’t mean people will actually use all of them. In an emergency, many people are likely to opt for roads they know best, which could lead to traffic jams on the more popular ways out of town.
So this summer, StreetLight Data, an analytics company in San Francisco, did a slightly different analysis.
Its researchers tallied exit routes in each community and measured their typical traffic loads using GPS data from cellphones. That allowed them to predict which routes people would be most likely to take during an evacuation.
StreetLight identified 15 places in California with more constrained evacuation routes than Paradise, ranging from some of the state’s most expensive gated neighborhoods to remote logging towns.
“It really cuts across income levels and terrain,” Martin Morzynski, the company’s vice president for marketing, told me. “When it’s smoky, things are hectic, what have you, people tend to take the road they know.”
The five places with the most limited evacuation routes were:
— Bell Canyon in Ventura County
— Brooktrails in Mendocino County
— Lake California in Tehama County
— North Shore in Riverside County
— Coto De Caza in Orange County
Three major blazes have whipped through Bell Canyon, a hilly gated community home to about 2,000 residents, since Tim Brehm moved there in 1980.
Brehm, a retired high school teacher, prepares his home each year by clearing brush and maintaining hundreds of feet of defensible space around his home.
He knows there are two exit routes out of Bell Canyon but has never used either. He has always stayed behind to defend his property, although he acknowledged that fires appear to be growing more belligerent.
“I always have a viable escape plan: Keep my keys in my pocket and my truck is right there,” Brehm told me. “If everything goes south, then I’ll just get in my truck and go.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.