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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Afterburn: The Consequences of an Urban Wildfire


It's been several weeks since a fire tore through our city, destroying 2,800 homes and burning over 57 square miles of surrounding land. Living with the aftermath of a fire like this has put us all through a steep and traumatic learning curve.

The smell of smoke has now been replaced by the smell of ash. On a clear, dry day you catch a whiff on the wind and see it settle on the coffee table if the windows are open. After the rains, it smells strongly like a wet ashtray, kind of pungent and repugnant at the same time. I used to love the smell of rain. I don't so much anymore.

It's haunting to see block after block of destroyed homes. The only thing left standing in the neighborhoods that burned are the chimneys, the fire was so hot everything else was reduced to ash. Even the cars sort of melted into the ground: tires burned off the rims, glass windows melted and fused, interiors completely burned away. Driving through the streets is like driving through a graveyard, but one so raw and abandoned it's as if they forgot to bury the dead. It feels disrespectful to even look at the blackened ruins, the raw emotional loss of those who lost homes on full display.

Everyday, I drive by a mobile home park that was almost completely destroyed. Sadly, two people died there, unable to get out in time. The park has been there my whole life, tucked into the corner at the intersection of two busy streets, flanked by a hospital on one side and the highway at its back. It used to have a fence blocking the view from the street and lots of mature trees and shrubs along it's borders. It's strange to look across it now, only the twisted frames and burned out cars interrupting the view all the way to the highway traffic. I worry the owner will decide to sell the lot to retail developers. Where will our fixed income folks live?


We're learning that even something as hot as a wind-whipped wildfire can have a snowball effect. Having approximately 8,400 people suddenly become homeless puts a huge strain on a rental market that already only had about a 1% vacancy rate. While many people have been quite generous, opening their homes to victims, sharing extra rooms and food and beds, other rental owners have been quietly raising their rates.

Homes that were once vacation rentals were taken off the market and offered as a more permanent housing option. This, in combination with losing two of our biggest hotels to the flames, has reduced options for tourists. Now, even if we can convince tourists to come visit, there are far fewer places to stay while they're here.

In at least one instance I personally heard about, a couple that lost their home to the fire turned around and evicted the tenants from their rental home across town, and moved into that house until their burned home can be rebuilt. This put another family on the street, one that doesn't have the advantage of being able to apply to FEMA or insurance or any other agency since they were not burned out. I am not judging the landlords, I probably would have been forced to do the same in their shoes. It's just another example of the domino effect that seems to amplify the pain.

Traffic on the one highway through town has become a nightmare. A combination of people displaced by the fires moving out of town and now commuting to work and school, and side roads closed due to reconstruction and tree removal have created gridlock for weeks now. The fire burned about a mile of freeway guardrail posts, leaving the rails dangling and twisted. Traffic slows as people gawk at the destruction, and the work crews cutting dead trees and replacing the rails slows traffic even more. I work 8 miles from my home. Some days it takes me an hour door to door.

The fires took place in October, just at the start of our rainy season. The fire burned so hot (up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit) it destroyed all but the biggest and most sturdy trees. Everything holding the soil in place is gone, so one of our major worries is mudslides. The other worry is pollution. When a home burns, so of course does all its contents. Think of all the cans of paint, fertilizer, cleaning products, plastics, medications, etc. that are laying around your house. Multiply that by 2800 then imagine trying to keep all the chemicals from washing into the creeks and rivers. The wood ash alone can clog a creek and kill all the critters living there. Crews went out and staked wattles (large tubes filled with hay) to try to keep hillsides from sliding and ash from washing into storm drains. During our last big downpour, the restricted flow caused by the wattles around the storm drains ended up flooding the streets.

Speaking of storm drains, in the newer housing neighborhoods in the hills, a modern plastic drainage system was used. The fire melted the drainage lines underground, and during the heavy rains opened up sinkholes and small mudslides when the water tried to find a route around the melted and sealed conduits. Underground cable lines also melted, and many of the power and cable networks will need to be replaced.

Mark's work was partially destroyed by the fire, and the rest of the buildings had smoke and water damage. He has been working seven days a week since, part of a team trying to coordinate a huge cleanup/recovery effort they never imagined they'd have to face. Everything—from the cubicle walls to the high tech clean room equipment—must be scrubbed, repaired/replaced, tested and brought back to production. One hundred and thirty of the 1200 employees lost their homes. Half of the employees have yet to go back to work, not having a place that's safe or functional enough to do their jobs. One bright spot in all this; they are all being paid throughout this process.

A couple of major retail stores and fast-food restaurants burned down. Those workers are not so lucky. Many are not only out of a home but out of a job as well. I'm not sure we'll recover soon, if at all, from the loss of this important sector of our population. How can a person making $11/hour pay for an apartment that's $1600/month (if they can even find one)? I have no doubt they will rebuild the two fancy hotels that burned down. I'm just not sure who's going to change the sheets.

Since tourism is down, so are the revenues of the remaining stores and restaurants. As we enter the holiday season, many of those that lost their homes don't have money for gifts and meals out. They have to use what resources they have to replace what they've lost, and must wait for insurance money to do that. This, in turn, is leading to less income for the workers who rely on tips and holiday jobs to get them through the season.

The magnitude of the homes that were lost will put a giant dent in the property tax revenues, the very taxes that support the fire departments we need to keep this from happening again. This fire cost an enormous amount of money to fight, and they are already in a deficit.

One of the worst side affects of the fire is the mental anguish it has caused. Already, one of the victims has committed suicide, right on the site of his burned home. I can see how the shock of losing everything you own, right before the holidays, and the daunting prospect of wading through years of rebuilding would be too much to take. The victim was 70 years old, at a point in life when things should be getting easier, not harder. Unfortunately I can see how this might happen again, although I really hope it doesn't.

Even those of us that haven't lost our homes are affected. There is an awful, haunted undercurrent to living here now. When going about our day to day business, our initial greeting has become "Are you ok? Do you have a home?" There's a little guilt to saying yes, we are fine, and a little untruth. No, we are not fine. We're traumatized. Each day is a little better, and some mornings it's not the first thing I think about. But then I drive to work, sitting in standstill traffic, staring at the homes and businesses that are no more and think, how did this happen?

Eventually, the ashes will be cleared and the homes will be rebuilt. The traffic will calm down, the wet ashtray smell will vanish and that nagging dry cough that developed after inhaling smoke for two weeks will subside. The undertone of sadness will fade, and things will settle into routine.

Somehow though, I don't think our routine will ever be exactly the same again.