After the Camp Fire, Paradise is still home

How our connection to place will shape the future of the West.

 

No one told Rebecca Appel to evacuate. When she saw flames cresting the ridge near her home, she frantically loaded her two daughters, ages 7 and 4, and two dogs into the family’s Nissan Armada and fled.

Skyway, the main road out, was at a standstill as tens of thousands of residents scrambled to leave. As Appel waited on the clogged roadway, her car caught fire from the intensity of the heat — the windshield wipers and window seals started melting — but she couldn’t drive forward to get away. For a moment, she thought they were going to die. “As a parent, there is nothing more horrifying than not being able to protect your children,” Appel said. 

Appel escaped, becoming one of an estimated 37,000 people who survived the now-notorious Camp Fire. The November 2018 blaze became California’s most destructive on record, consuming 18,804 structures and 85 lives. Now, more than a year later, she has started rebuilding her home on the same plot of land that burned before, despite knowing that more wildfires are likely.

Homeowner Carrie Keel rebuilds one of her rental properties in Paradise, California. So far, 81 homes have been rebuilt and another 883 building permits have been filed for the town that was ravaged by the Camp Fire in 2018.
Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

Her choice defies an intuitive logic: People shouldn’t stay in disaster-prone places. But disaster researchers have found that survivors’ most common response, by far, to events like the Camp Fire is an overwhelming desire to return. The reason lies in the fundamental connection to place — a complicated mix of psychology, economics and social networks that, in combination, make people decide to stay put, even in the most vulnerable circumstances.  

Climate change is increasing the risks of natural disaster in the West — rising seas, hotter climates, increased wildfires and diminishing water supplies. All these forces have the potential to rewrite the lives and landscapes of the region, yet our relationship to the place we call home remains central to how we respond.

Returning home is not always possible, and extreme disasters create millions of climate refugees every year.

But in situations less severe, people find ways to adapt, something that can be easier for a post-disaster community than moving away. Relocating has all sorts of impacts on people’s lives: They may have to commute longer, live farther away from friends and family, or be forced to leave their jobs. The net impact, said Robert B. Olshansky, professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is that it can create more strain for people to uproot their entire lives than it does for them to weather periodic disasters. 

This was the case for the majority of residents after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Olshansky helped conduct a study of a relief program for homeowners that found that 88% of them chose to stay put. Many were low-income, the study found, underscoring the pivotal role economics plays in decision-making. Often, low-income populations lack the resources to simply pack up and start again elsewhere from scratch.

The psychology of place also plays a pivotal role in our response to natural disaster. Environmental psychologists, who study our psychological and emotional connections to our environment, note that the cumulative experiences that comprise our lives are imprinted on our physical landscapes. “Meeting friends, having family outings, getting married or graduations, death and burial of loved ones — those are all very deeply rooted in place,” said Daniel Iacofano, an environmental planner and psychologist. 

Natural disasters rob us of the places that are richly tied to our personal history, disrupting our sense of self. 

Natural disasters rob us of the places that are richly tied to our personal history, disrupting our sense of self. Cumulatively, this loss manifests in a deep sense of powerlessness, said Iacofano. A desire to repair this loss is one reason why people consistently rebuild after disasters. “You come and look at the area of devastation, and you don’t see anything, and you say, ‘How can somebody move back?’ ” said Iacofano. “But people have a desire to return to that sense of normalcy.” 

In Paradise, the community is slowly reviving. According to Butte County records, 81 homes have been rebuilt and another 883 building permits have been filed as of March 26. A study conducted by KQED found that the majority of people purchasing property in Paradise are local.

But wildfires are likely to happen again in Butte County, where Paradise is located. CalFire data on future risk shows that roughly half of the county has an annual probability of fire ranging from 40-90%.

For a while, Appel and her husband considered leaving. But the desire to stay won out: For 10 years, the Paradise area had been their home. Appel’s husband has a well-established dentistry practice here. And they wanted the rural lifestyle.  “Other places with similar attributes have fires, too,” said Appel. “Just running from the place wasn’t going to solve the problem that it was still home.”

Their new home will be made of concrete to make the place as fire-resistant as possible. For Appel and her family, the toll of leaving outweighed the risk of staying.

“The place felt more like home than any place we had been,” said Appel. “That was important to us.” 

Piper McDaniel is a crime and public safety fellow at The Oregonian where she covers breaking news and reports on natural disasters, environment and vulnerable populations.  Her work has been published in the LA Times, Huffington Post, and others. 

Email HCN at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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