Two weeks ago I spent a couple of hours in Paradise, California, where in November 2018 most of the Northern California town was destroyed by the 154,000-acre Camp Fire. It was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history, killing 85 people and destroying nearly 20,000 structures, mostly homes in the picturesque Sierra foothill community.
On the same morning, I explored nearby Lake Shasta and Lake Oroville. Shasta is the third largest lake in California and a major source of water for people and agriculture. Lake Oroville, besides its major role in water storage and control, generates enough electricity to power 800,000 homes. For a time late last year, the lake was so low its power plant was shut down.
I visited marinas at both lakes. In most cases, I ended up driving on makeshift dirt roads more than 100 feet below the high water line (I believe at Shasta it was 120 feet). At Lake Shasta, one RV park, once at the lakeshore, was at least a mile drive away from the water. It’s scary to think of what’s ahead if the drought continues, which is likely.
I was in Northern California on my way by car from Seattle to a family reunion farther south, and had only half a day to visit these three places. But it was enough to get a sense of what was going on.
A week later I reached my destination in California’s Central Valley, south of Fresno, where evidence of the drought and fire damage was also apparent — dying orchards here and there (but not as many as I would have thought) and fallow ground where row crops might be grown. In the Sierra Nevada between Shaver and Huntington lakes, the huge 379,000-acre Creek Fire of 2020 wiped out much of the forest. I spent several summer vacations at Huntington Lake as a child. Seeing the now-devastated forest was heartbreaking.
In Tulare County, where I stayed, many homes were without water, their wells run dry, probably permanently unless their owners cough up $10,000, $20,000 or more to have them drilled deeper. Few can afford that.
My main interest was Paradise
I wanted to see how many of the residents who lost homes were rebuilding, and how many were living in RVs. I have a theory that countless California residents will leave the state soon because of fire danger (high fire insurance premiums will drive many away). According to CNBC, more than 360,000 moved out of state in 2021. I wonder how many bought RVs to live in elsewhere.
I lived near Paradise for about 25 years, and visited many times. It was a beautiful town, most of the homes in a pine forest. It pretty much lived up to its name.
It’s far different now. You can easily spot where homes were destroyed — you see driveways leading nowhere and an occasional fireplace chimney. Swimming pools, abandoned at the back of now-vacant lots, suggest happier times. A toddler’s tricycle lay discarded in front of one property where a home once stood.
BELOW: One view of a future Paradise as envisioned by recovery planners. (Click to enlarge.)
I drove around, not stopping to talk to anybody. I just wanted to see with my own eyes how the city was recovering and how people were living. There was some construction of new homes, but few and far apart. Very often, from what I observed, residents had purchased manufactured homes rather than rebuild a traditional one. And, as I suspected, some displaced residents were living in RVs, mostly fifth wheel trailers.
As you may recall, many years ago as a college student, I worked summers fighting fires for the U.S. Forest Service. I am still able to recognize a dangerously dry forest — one that could go up in a flash. That’s what I saw in Northern California. It was, plain and simple, scary!
If I lived in a fire-prone area of California (and that’s much of the state), considering what has happened in the last few years, I would be selling my home about now and moving somewhere safer. Given my love of RVs, and given the comfort of today’s fifth wheel trailers, I believe I would be seriously considering buying a fifth wheel and heading off to a place not prone to natural disasters (getting harder to find all the time). If a wildfire or dangerous storm were on the radar, I’d pack up, roll off down the highway, and return later at the sound of the all-clear alert.
P.S. I realize similar drought conditions and fire dangers exist in other states, not just California. My observations here, therefore, could apply just as well to people who live in many areas dealing with extreme weather and living conditions.