The order to leave came in the early afternoon.
April Williams was asleep when she heard a bang, bang, bang on her door. The 27-year-old, part-time childcare worker lifted her head and peaked out the window of her home, nestled among single-story ranch-style houses and ponderosa pine trees in Lake Shastina, a small town in the shadow of Mount Shasta near the Oregon border.
The sky was red and full of smoke.
“You have to get out of here,” her neighbor said. “Now.”
It was June 28, and the Lava Fire, the first major blaze of what’s already on its way to be another historically devastating wildfire season, was burning out of control. Law enforcement officers were also going door-to-door in her neighborhood.
Williams spent an hour trying to herd her two cats, one of whom wouldn’t come out from under the bed. Then, she gathered whatever personal belongings she could into her beat up 2006 Escalade.
She hit the road, but Williams wasn’t in the clear. She encountered a roadblock on the evacuation route as she tried to reach State Highway 97, a two-lane road that is the main route out of town.
“Everybody in the street was kind of — like — panicking,” Williams said. Unable to take the highway, she tracked other cars’ brake lights. As the flames came closer, she found herself trapped in slow-moving traffic. “Everybody was kind of getting stuck.”
But Williams wasn’t supposed to be stuck.
Two years ago, Cal Fire cut an extensive fuel break along Highway 97 and two connecting roads. The project included trimming and clearing vegetation on nearly 500 acres, according to data provided by Cal Fire. The fuel break measured up to 100 feet wide on each side of the highway and was considered “critical for the safe evacuation of approximately 2,500 residents.”
It was one of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 35 “priority projects,” designed to protect the state’s “most vulnerable communities” and prevent a repeat of the catastrophe in Paradise. During the 2018 Fire, at least eight of the 85 who perished were burned alive in their cars, as they tried in vain to evacuate. No one died in the Lava Fire, but an investigation by CapRadio and NPR’s California Newsroom shows the realistic limitations of Newsom’s priority fuel breaks.
Had the winds blown in a slightly different direction, evacuees snarled in traffic could have been caught in the fire’s path. As it was, the fire destroyed 14 homes after jumping the fuel break on Highway 97.
Chris Hagan / CapRadio
Despite this, Cal Fire describes the Lake Shastina project as a “success.” The clearance enabled Cal Fire “to move [evacuees] out of the area safely and efficiently,” the agency’s Siskiyou unit chief, Phillip Anzo, said in an interview. The fuel break, he said, “helped our firefighters create a location where they can make a stand, or try to make a stand, against this fire.”
Newsom declined an interview request. In early 2020, touting his 35 projects, he claimed he was “acting quickly — with emergency pace — to protect communities most at risk and save lives before the wildfire starts.”
In an email, spokesperson Erin Mellon acknowledged “California is fire prone, and no strategy can be 100 percent effective every time given the dynamics of wildfire and the extreme conditions on the ground driven by climate change.”
Fuel breaks “by themselves are not a panacea,” she wrote. “California needs every tool in the toolbox to deal with wildfires and lessen their impacts on communities.”
* * *
Soaring temperatures and extreme drought are two major factors behind this year’s dangerous fire season. Through late July, nearly 460,000 acres had burned in California, compared to 120,000 acres during the same period in 2020, the worst fire season in recorded history. Decades of fire suppression have led to a buildup of fuels in California’s wildlands, and over a century of human-caused climate change is creating increasingly extreme conditions.
The fuel break cannot be blamed for the ferocity of the Lava Fire, but it was supposed to ensure the smooth evacuation of residents.
However, within a few hours of the evacuation order, authorities closed Highway 97, the main artery connecting Lake Shastina to the slightly larger city of Weed, 10 miles to the south. For four days after Williams tried to flee, the roadway was quiet, with no cars allowed to pass, save emergency vehicles. Sheriff’s deputies patrolled intersections to the north and south, rebuffing returning residents and onlookers alike.
From east to west, the two-lane highway divided a scorched black landscape. A plume of smoke arched overhead from the active firefront a few miles away. But here, near Lake Shastina and the neighboring Mount Shasta Vista community, the damage had already been done.
With Highway 97 closed, Williams found herself stuck on rural backroads, trying to reach the evacuation center in Yreka 30 miles away. She wasn’t familiar with the terrain and her GPS wasn’t picking up a signal.
“I didn’t know how I was getting out,” she said. “I started following people’s cars.”
Stuck in traffic, her eyes darted between the SUV’s gas needle hovering near empty and the fire’s angry red glow in the rearview mirror. Williams said it was bumper-to-bumper for 20 to 30 minutes.
Finally, after about two hours trying to navigate unfamiliar roads, she arrived at Jackson Elementary School in Yreka, where the Red Cross set up an evacuation shelter. The gymnasium was filled with cots spaced apart for social distancing, but the place still felt cramped. Its one saving grace: air conditioning.
The Siskiyou County Sheriff's Office lifted the evacuation order after four days, but Williams remained stranded at the school. Her car battery had died. One by one, evacuees filed out of the parking lot, eager to get home, yet frightened that they might find a pile of ashes where their house once stood.
This reporter interviewed Williams at the evacuation center after jumping her car.
In the parking lot, as she waited for the battery to charge, her forehead glistened in the waning daylight. The 100 degree heat pulsed, even in the shade of a nearby tree.
* * *
Experts say to truly protect towns such as Lake Shastina, the state and federal government must work together on wildfire prevention.
Newsom has been under scrutiny for his track record on wildfire prevention, declaring “everybody has had enough” on his first day in office. A series of June investigations from CapRadio and NPR’s California Newsroom found the governor had rolled back an ambitious wildfire prevention goal set by his predecessor. He also misled the public, overstating — by 690% — the number of acres treated through his 35 “priority projects.”
According to a San Francisco Chronicle investigation, those priority projects have struggled to mitigate fire spread just about every time they’ve encountered a blaze.
“When [the projects] did intercept a fire, the flames often pushed right through, governed by winds and ember storms made famous in the destructive infernos in Paradise and Wine Country,” the Chronicle reported. “Going forward, the breaks are likely to have similar shortcomings.”
Cal Fire has long been aware of this reality. An agency analysis published around the same time as the 35 priority project plan examined the performance of 11 fires that burned between 1999 and 2017. “Fuel breaks are not designed to stop fire spread, especially during periods of strong winds,” reads the study’s second sentence.
Regardless, Newsom has taken to pumping up the “priority projects” over the last 18 months, including at a press event in Butte County last September.
“These high profile fuel breaks … have actually saved a lot of property [and] potentially lives,” said Newsom, surrounded by the smoldering destruction left by the North Complex Fire.
Newsom has since set a goal for the state to treat 500,000 acres a year by 2025, an amount the federal government has pledged to match. (The previous governor, Jerry Brown, had tasked the state with treating half-a-million acres annually by a deadline two years earlier, 2023.)
Despite repeated inquiries from CapRadio and NPR’s California Newsroom, Cal Fire has not provided details on its progress toward Newsom’s goal. Data provided by the U.S. Forest Service showed the agency treated 213,842 acres in 2020, short of its 235,000 acre goal for the year. Through the first 10 months of the current fiscal year, the Forest Service says it has treated approximately 100,000 acres. The agency remains well short of its goal for 2021, at a time when the increasing number of fires pulls crews away from prevention work in order to suppress active blazes.
Data provided by the Forest Service shows the agency has treated over 72,000 acres across the sprawling Shasta-Trinity National Forest since 2016. During that time, the agency said it treated over 8,000 acres of overgrown forestland near the Lava Fire’s path. Some of that work occurred in the burn area of the Lava Fire.
The fire started on federal land in late June, when dozens of lightning strikes snapped across the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. Fire crews with the U.S. Forest Service initially thought they had extinguished the fire in the rugged hills near Mt. Shasta, after it burned less than an acre. But the fire rekindled and soon spun out of control.
Four days later, gusting winds pushed it north, away from the mountain and toward Cal Fire’s fuel break along Highway 97. It proved futile against the gale-drive flames. A slight shift in the wind would have sent the fire toward Lake Shastina. Instead, it burned in a narrow column across a flat stretch of Juniper trees, still destroying over a dozen homes.
Cal Fire’s Siskiyou Unit later boasted about the fuel break’s success in a series of tweets. One tweet included a video slideshow, set to dramatic synthesizer music.
“The Lake Shastina Fuel Treatment Project slowed the fire, made it easier to evacuate and providing (sic) an anchor point for firefighters to engage the Lava Fire in a safer manner,” reads one of the captions.
The Lake Shastina Fuel Treatment Project slowed the fire, aided in evacuations and provided a place for firefighter to engage the fire in a safer manner. Watch the video to learn more about this important project! #CALFIRESKU2021 pic.twitter.com/DF5o12a2BV— CAL FIRE SKU (@CALFIRESKU) July 16, 2021
The video makes no mention of the 14 homes destroyed after the fire broke through the fuel break.
Williams said she doesn’t think the agency was entitled to a victory lap.
“I'm assuming that it didn't necessarily work,” she said at the evacuation center in Yreka. “With the way these fires are going, we really got to figure this out.”
* * *
Ken Pimlott, former chief of Cal Fire who retired in 2018, says public officials risk creating a false sense of security by not communicating the realistic limitations of fuel breaks to the public.
“The community needs to fully understand the value of the fuel break [and] what the agencies are trying to accomplish with it,” he said. “It’s not a forcefield; it’s not going to armor you 100% against the impacts of a wildland fire.”
And the reality is, they’re becoming less effective as time goes on due to climate change.
Pimlott says fire breaks have “significant value for protecting communities under normal conditions,” such as moderate winds and stable fuel moisture levels. But fire crews increasingly face extremes. When high winds blow embers hundreds of yards ahead of a fire front, fuel breaks stand little chance of containing a blaze.
Pimlott suggests building fuel breaks wider by using a combination of mechanical thinning, prescribed burns and chemical herbicides.
He also says ongoing maintenance is essential. Cal Fire data shows the department has not done any follow-up work on the Lake Shastina fuel break, which removed fast-growing manzanita and brush, since it was completed in 2019. Cal Fire spokesperson Nick Schuler says the department plans to do maintenance work this fall.
Building fuel breaks wider would likely draw pushback from environmental groups. And Cal Fire might not have capacity for the expanded workload. In recent weeks, the Newsom administration and Legislature hesitated on allocating $1 billion in the state budget for fire prevention — a huge increase from past years — in part because the department would have difficulty spending all of that money on mitigation work. There aren’t enough shovel-ready projects, and the firefighter workforce is already stretched thin, shifting its focus from prevention to suppression as this year’s peak fire season arrives months early.
Proposed improvements to fuel breaks, and Cal Fire’s capacity problem when it comes to prevention, are being hashed out in the bureaucratic stratosphere. Those changes — if any of them happen — will take time.
On the ground, fire prone communities have to reckon with California’s new fire reality right now.
Over a month after it started, the Lava Fire continues to burn. As of late July, it spanned over 26,000 acres and was 78% contained.
“I never saw myself having to run from a fire,” said Williams, thinking back to the day she evacuated. “I was so unprepared, thinking it couldn’t happen to me.”
She returned from the evacuation center to find her home intact, but carrying the energy of abandonment. Her dead plants wilted in their planters and a thick layer of ashy dust coated every surface.
She waited for days to unpack her car, knowing that the fire still raged just a few miles away.
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