YUBA CITY and PARADISE, Calif. - As those impacted by the Camp Fire continue to sort out what comes next in regards to emergency evacuation routes of the Ridge, recovery managers say it could take years to improve existing evacuation routes.
For one couple Action News Morning Anchor Julia Yarbough met shortly after the Camp Fire, a visit and chat one year later, indicates a return to Paradise is not a risk they say they would be willing to take.
When Nina and Frank Panek escaped the flames of the Camp Fire, one thing was going through their minds.
Frank Panek says he and his wife did not think they were going to get out alive.
A year later, Nina remains bed-ridden from the effects of Parkinson’s disease and Frank is still close by, never far from her side, caring for her.
The couple has since relocated to Yuba City. It is now home, but not the house and home they loved in Paradise. Even so, both say they would never be willing to again live in Paradise.
Frank says after what happened and the narrow escape with their lives, there is no amount of land, money or possessions which would convince him to go back.
Nina says, the fear of another fire or some other natural disaster, such as an earthquake, weighs heavy on her. She says given that she is bed-ridden and must rely on someone to care for her and get her out of an emergency situation; she would not want to return to Paradise.
But this past summer, Town of Paradise leaders asked those who have chosen to stay or return, what they want.
The Paradise Community Long Term Recovery Plan is a 145-page document outlining the key findings of a series of meetings.
People indicated they want more evacuation routes, wider streets and an enhanced focus on safety.
Laura Page is the Disaster Recovery Director for the Town of Paradise. She says Town leaders are looking for funding to conduct an analysis of the entire road system, including evacuation routes, traffic routes and creating a walkable downtown.
Given the task, she admits it will not be easy or fast.
She says the reality is the Town needs a firm study in order to develop what the scope of work would be so that any work is consistent and within a coordinated plan.
Because of those steps, she anticipates it will be years before any physical changes are made to roadways or existing evacuation routes. She says one positive in making evacuations faster and safer, despite no physical changes, is that the population of Paradise is now considerably smaller than before the Camp Fire. That means there are fewer people who would need to get out, should there be a mass emergency.
Page says Town Managers, as well as Police and Fire personnel, are regularly meeting with Cal Fire and other local and regional agencies. They are working to identify best practices and develop strategies for improved alert systems and evacuation plans.
Cal Fire Butte County Captain John Gaddie says one aspect emergency managers are working on, is to try and get alerts out earlier, so evacuations are not impacted so quickly. He says Cal Fire is addressing evacuation routes; looking at which ones worked and which ones did not. He says Cal Fire is also bringing in fuel crews to clear back brush along roadways.
Captain Gaddie says short of making physical changes to evacuation routes, the next best piece of advice for those living in Paradise and other communities in the fire-prone area is to understand the region you live.
He says it is crucial to understand that you live in what has been determined to be a very high fire severity zone. He reminds people to have a plan, be prepared and when asked to leave by emergency teams and first responders; follow the directions and get out.
As for Frank and Nina Panek, they say not even that was enough for them during the Camp Fire.
Frank says he learned that fire could move very quickly, saying when first responders say you have time to evacuate, the reality is, you may not.
In the short term, the Town of Paradise is now also working neighboring jurisdictions for improved communications during evacuation events and that includes changing traffic flows, coordinating stoplights and anticipating the impacts of an influx of evacuees on local services.