Podcast: Resilience Roundtable
After the Camp Fire, Part I
In a two-part episode, Bill Siembieda, AICP, PhD, talks with Butte County, California, planning staff about the aftermath of the 2018 Camp Fire — one of the deadliest and costliest wildfires in the state's history, with 85 casualties and more than 50,000 people evacuated from their homes.
Part I of these conversations features Dan Breedon, AICP, principal planner for Butte County. Dan describes how people throughout the county had a dire need for temporary housing the very day the fire began on November 8, 2018; he also talks about how the creation of an urgency ordinance became paramount. Dan explains why the specific topography of the area added to their challenges, as well as what the most critical land-use issues are now that the disaster has occurred. Ultimately, listeners learn about how, in the wake of this disaster, local agencies are focusing on improving resilience and adopting better land-use policies, not simply on maintaining a swift response strategy.
Bill Siembieda, AICP, PhD, is professor of city and regional planning at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.
Jim Schwab, FAICP: Welcome to the American Planning Association podcast. This episode continues our series that looks at how different communities prepared for and responded to natural hazards, such as floods, wildfires, hurricanes, and more. How have planners in these communities promoted resilience in their hazard mitigation and disaster recovery planning? We’ll find out, on this episode of Resilience Roundtable, brought to you in conjunction with the American Planning Association’s Hazard Mitigation and Disaster Recovery Planning Division. I’m your host, Jim Schwab, FAICP. I’m chair-elect of APA’s Hazard Mitigation and Disaster Recovery Planning Division. Before we jump in to the episode, I’d like to thank Rich Roths, AICP, for hosting episodes 1 through 4 of this podcast and bringing his expertise to those interviews.
In this episode, we bring you a conversation hosted by Bill Siembieda, professor of city and regional planning at California Polytechnic State University. Bill interviews Dan Breedon, principal planner for Butte County in California, about his experience with the aftermath of the 2018 Camp Fire. A normal question for planners after a disaster is, what do we do now? But here, the huge factor is immediate displacement and a need for temporary housing. What do planners do about this? Let's listen to Bill and Dan.
Bill Siembieda, AICP: Hello, I'm Bill Siembieda, professor of city and regional planning at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. My work is in hazard mitigation and land-use planning. I'm here with Dan Breedon from the County of Butte, California. Dan, why don't you tell us a little bit about who you are, where's the county, the size and the composition of the planning staff?
Dan Breedon, AICP: Yeah. So yeah, I am from Butte County. I'm a principal planner, employed for about 20 years in Butte County itself. And Butte County is a large county of about 1,600 square miles, comprises a variety of land types: the valley, foothills, mountain areas, basically divided into thirds along those lines of each different type of land use. We have incorporated cities. We also have many unincorporated communities. And we are located, I would say about 100 miles north of Sacramento.
Bill: OK. How big is the staff of the planning department in Butte County?
Dan: As far as professional planners, we have six professional planners, including myself.
Bill: All right. What are your major responsibilities now in contrast to those of the City of Paradise with regards to rebuilding and recovery?
Dan: Well, currently we're involved with an urgency ordinance developed to provide temporary housing for those displaced by the Camp Fire. That's really taken over my role. A lot of my other duties were in advanced planning, which is a section of one, myself. What we do is normally, we process zoning code amendments, tend to the general plan, update the general plan, a variety of amendments and zoning ordinance amendments. After the Camp Fire, a lot of our priorities were drastically changed. Management, planners, everybody in the department became focused on: What do we do to respond to this event? Including myself. And so, really the biggest need after that event was the temporary housing situation, where we had 30,000 people lose their homes, 50,000 people evacuated. So starting on the day of that event, November 8, we had immediate need that day, that night. Where are these people going to sleep? Where are they going to go? And so that was something that we were tasked to do, to develop an urgency ordinance to provide some flexibility on where people could be accommodated. So in our situation, our zoning ordinance is strict about camping, strict about what you can — where you can move a mobile home. So we had to take a look at that and address where can we provide leniency, so people could provide for so much of the folks who were just immediately displaced in the amount of an afternoon. There was two types of problems, really. One was the immediate need of people who didn't even have a trailer, or someone to move in [with], a friend or a relative, right away. And so we saw tent cities spring up. One sprung up in the Walmart parking lot in Chico. So there was an immediate need. How do we address the health and safety of those folks? How do we get them out of those temporary evacuation centers — which was really just minimal support for folks — and get them into a situation [that] is a lot safer, a lot more pleasant for them to sustain for a while? That's more of your transitional housing from the day of the event. Maybe they were in some recovery center, or support center for several weeks. At that point, they could move into a trailer somewhere on a property, and so we relaxed our zoning standards to ensure that for any residential use in Butte County, where residential use was allowed, two trailers could be provided for an initial term. And then after that initial term, if they could hook up to utilities with a trailer, or an RV, or a mobile home, they could stay there for a period of — until the end of the urgency ordinance, which was December 31, 2020, as we wrote it in. So a variety of needs almost immediately, and our department was tasked with responding to that.
Bill: You've described very adequately sort of a cascading disaster. Phase one is the house is burned. Phase two was evacuation. Then phase three is where were all the people going to live and what are they going to do and that you get — your department reorganizes itself as an extension of the emergency management function in the county, right?
Dan: Right, exactly.
Bill: OK, good. Can you give us a little more background about the scope of the disaster, so we can understand its scale, its impact on the town of Paradise and the county?
Dan: Sure. Yeah, so the fire affected not only the town of Paradise but unincorporated communities surrounding Paradise. They're all aligned on this upper ridge, what we call the Upper Ridge collectively, a number of communities, Magalia and the town of Paradise and surrounding unincorporated areas. And just to give you an idea of how quickly this all took place, the fire started in the community of Pulga, very, very tiny mountain community, not much population there, and spread across the Feather River Canyon, got to Paradise in about two hours. The speed of that transmission of the fire was what they say is a football field per second. So it got to Paradise in two hours, and in 12 hours, it totally consumed the town of Paradise, with a few exceptions. So we had a loss of thousands and thousands of residences. And by the end of the day, pretty much all the homes that were lost were gone. And so there was almost an immediate loss of infrastructure. We had the evacuation take place during that time, like said, 50,000 folks who had to be evacuated. And the ridge itself has very little access, so it has really one way in and one way out. And that presents — that has presented a challenge to development for as long as I've been employed with the county. It's recognized in our general plan as a big challenge. To some degree, this event was very much considered by our general plan. We went through a general plan update process from 2006 to 2010 and considered all of what was going on there very carefully. The issue of secondary access was very difficult to solve, namely because of the cost. But what we could do is exercise some zoning restrictions in the area to ensure that additional density did not develop in the Upper Ridge, and that's something that was done. So that was the scale of the event with a little bit of discussion about land use thrown in.
Bill: Thank you. No, that's good. So why don't you tell us what do you think are the most critical land-use impact examples that face the community now that this event occurred?
Dan: Well, cleanup of course, removal of all the debris, which is going to — taking place over the next year or so. Initially, it was the removal of all the hazardous materials, which I thought happened fairly quickly. Now they've been fighting the weather in terms of getting the cleanup done for the second phase of the cleanup, where they take all the material out of there. So that's a big challenge. Erosion, of course, is a big challenge. Protection of water quality. There are important streams that are in the watershed of Paradise and the area. So those are all very big, difficult issues that are going on right now, and the removal of all that debris and where it goes. We're responding — in our department, we ensure that if there is a need for instance, for a truck-staging area, or a cleanup site, that we're reviewing those sites for their suitability. We're working with FEMA to ensure that we're getting the correct information about exactly what is needed. We get a lot of people come to us and say, “Hey, I want to start up a debris removal site here, so bring on the debris.” We have to say no, we have to work on a plan to where logically those sites should be.
Bill: So you mentioned FEMA. Can you talk about the key actors that you're coordinating with at both the state level and the federal level?
Dan: Of course California Office of Emergency Services [Cal OES]. Our own Butte County Fire Department, which is CAL FIRE. So we contract to CAL FIRE to be our fire department. Those are very important. The Office of Emergency Services, which is our own department. Of course, we work with them as well.
Bill: And you mentioned FEMA. Do you work directly with FEMA or indirectly with FEMA?
Dan: Yeah, we do work directly. Generally, they have meetings with our key staff and get information disseminated in that manner. Early on, they had a housing branch which we participated in quite a bit. Because FEMA was responding, they wanted to find out where the best places for manufactured housing units should be in the county. That was quite challenging, because we had many sites that were unsuitable. We're a rural county, we don't have a lot of services. So what we as planners tried to do was find out those areas where, for instance, development had been earmarked through our general plan and our zoning, where utilities were readily accessible. But in some instances, because of their standards and needs, even those sites were rejected for one reason or another, so that's been a challenge. But I would say that process, working with the housing branch, was a good one, in terms of reviewing sites with the local agencies.
Bill: You mentioned earlier the passing of a new ordinance that was a temporary shelter location ordinance. Can you explain that a little bit, and how does that ordinance get developed and who has to approve it?
Dan: Right. So our board of supervisors approves it. Under California law, we are allowed to develop an urgency ordinance that just — most of the procedural due process that's normally applied is not necessary, because of the urgency and the issue of the disaster. And so what we looked at was our own zoning ordinance and what ways can we relax the standards that are in that ordinance to provide some latitude for people to find housing right away. The process is a very speedy one actually. So it's just a matter of putting together the right response in terms of the language, getting that right, working with others to find out, did we get this right? Do you think this is appropriate with our partners, Cal OES, FEMA, variety of county departments, CAL FIRE, all these folks? And then bringing on and having a dialogue with the Board of Supervisors. The board gives us input and says, “You hit this right," or, "Guys, go back to the drawing board. We want a little bit more leniency," or, "We want a little bit more conservative approach to where all this housing is going to go.” So that was a challenge, because we went through I think six individual urgency ordinances during this process. And then we ultimately, what they say, codified that into a chapter of our county code, chapter 53, where that all came assembled and sort of was — our county council helped organize it so it made a bit of sense. And it was a dialogue, I think, with our board to say, “How far do you want to go in terms of opening the floodgates to allow people places to live?” And I think they sort of helped us gauge what was a good place or a bad place in order to provide housing, temporary housing in the county. And we wanted to make sure that the housing was close to Paradise, if possible. And we wanted to make sure that the housing could be close to services. Because if you're displaced, you're going to need — you don't have anything. Many of the folks that we worked with lost pretty much everything they're connected to: their computers, their laptops. So if they're going to be relocated to a new site, we were hoping that it would be somewhere where they could be connected as much as possible with services. And so we started there with the residential areas and the urban areas and [said], "How far do we want to go out allowing for additional housing?" And our board was very helpful in helping us determine that.
Bill: All of this is outside the normal planning functions for a county planning staff, right?
Dan: Yeah, sure. Yeah.
Bill: And you have new stakeholders, right? Everybody who lost their house or lost a relative becomes a stakeholder. I understand the Board of Supervisors as a primary stakeholder, they’re your boss, right?
Bill: And the county executive is the boss. But what about the residents groups that they organize and — into groups that you recognized, or how did how you know — how did you, from the different voices that were coming up and you’re hearing ... How do you sort that out and say, “Is this a legitimate voice [or] this is just someone who's anxious?”
Dan: Well, as planners, we’re pretty good at engaging in the public and kind of determining the need, just from the people who visit our office. So we could get a really good input from the folks who are working the front counter and what they're hearing out there, what are the needs. We had folks who — absolutely, they raise their hand and say, “Hey, I have 5 acres. I would love to have 15 trailers on our property.” And then we have that sort of input. And so we've got those coming in, and we can bring those to the board, and of course they're hearing from their constituents as well and asking, "What's the appropriate mix and allowance under the urgency ordinance? Where [should] these housing units be located?" So it's kind of a balancing act. You're hearing from a lot of the public. You're hearing from the board's constituents and indicating there's pressing need. And it's very difficult to say to someone, “I've got 40 acres and I would love to have — to solve this for you and bring more people on.” We had to balance the issue of agriculture. Agriculture is a very protected resource in Butte County, so we had to deny a few of those to say, "It's just not the appropriate place. It's too far out. It's not — it doesn't have the services, and it could end up ultimately converting an important agricultural resource." So we explained that to the board, and they felt the same way, that we have to be very measured about how much we want to provide.
Bill: So as a planning group, your staff really took the longer-term view of what's best for the county in the protection of the agricultural resources and also that you have [these] environmental threats of the water quality and contamination of the water supply. So the planner, in this sense, carries the vision through to the future and goes back. You said a number of times, you go back, you recognize this in the general plan. It must mean that the general plan is — turns out to be a valued instrument in making all these postdisaster decisions for you.
Dan: It is, it is. It was something that we could be grounded upon and our decision-makers could be grounded upon. So we relied upon that to help them make their decisions and to remind them about the county's policies of land use. And when you're responding to a big disaster like this, there is that temptation to just say, “Open it up. Let it go. People need homes. People are suffering.” And at the same time, you sort of want to have that caution out there that there is an appropriate level of response that needs to be made to accommodate everybody, and it's for their own health and safety.
Bill: OK. So what are the unique challenges of doing this work, or planning work, or just general assistance work with a municipality that effectively doesn't exist anymore as a regular municipality, especially if the city hall was in another town for a while? What do you do to work with the local government and to accommodate the different kind of organizations that arise from this?
Dan: Well, that's a challenge. And, you know, the town of Paradise had very few staff to begin with, and they're very impacted with just solving immediate crises on their own. So we haven't, I think, gotten to that point where — how are we going to establish a working relationship? There's an independent planning effort that the town is undertaking, which is a good thing. They're trying to figure out, you know, let's cast a vision for Paradise and learn from this event and sort of replan Paradise. And I think that's a very good development. Opportunity presents itself, when sometimes these disasters happen, to do some creative things. And so I think we want to continue working with Paradise as well on what they come out with, their community plans and their future vision for our unincorporated areas of Concow and Magalia, and what lessons can be learned there too. There's a lot more work to be done in planning. We are going to be looking at our own general plan along the lines of adaptation, fire resiliency, some of the compliance with the state laws that are coming up, and we hope to be a partner with Paradise as we develop those things.
Bill: In California, there's a safety element that's required as part of the general plan. And certainly after an event like this, are you going to — how are, is the county going to revisit its safety element and look at it and say, "How does the safety element really provide guidance for us going forward and what do we do to improve it in the City of Paradise?" Even if they have their own vision, [they] still [have] to have a general plan and a safety element. How is that going to work? I mean, what are you going to look for going forward? And how does the safety element then influence your land use element in the general plan?
Dan: Well, in California, we hope to achieve consistency between our elements. So if we're going to play around with a safety element, which we certainly are — I mean, we're mandated by the state to update the safety element to work in some adaptation policies. And that was even before the Camp Fire, that was sort of programmed into our work. At this point, it seems like a very great opportunity to work in issues of fire resiliency, community planning for the unincorporated area, and Paradise sharing information, working with stakeholders like our own Butte County Fire Safe Council, which they are a great group. They have people on the ground working to harden the landscape, make sure that homes are not as susceptible to fire in communities. So we want to work with those groups, as well as our own CAL FIRE, Butte County Fire Department, closely. Traditionally, fire departments are good at responding. Right? They respond to things, and they do a very good job of that. But we need to sort of think about how we can also work with planners to prevent things like this and to build mitigations in. And I think that's a really good opportunity for us as we work on our safety element.
Bill: Right. I think that's a very good observation, because CAL FIRE, which is the major state agency, is moving from, as I see it, a suppression paradigm to a new paradigm that says suppression is only part of what needs to be done and better land-use planning really needs to be incorporated. And CAL FIRE is mandated to do that by law, as to comment on county subdivision regulation. So are you going to look to them as a long-term resource to have the part of the debate and discussion going forward? Other counties in California, such as Santa Barbara, which has also been a fire-impacted community, is redoing its safety element, but they don't have CAL FIRE. They have their own fire department in the county, and so that — there's different models. So will you go forward? I mean, is the sort of planning model now to be more inclusive of things like CAL FIRE and other voices in this, or how is Butte County going to spend the next year? What are you going to do in the next year, after you figure out how to get rid of the debris, which may still be there after next year?
Dan: Well, as I mentioned, we, we're sort of on a track to update our general plan with a variety of state mandates that were coming forward, which had to do with the safety element, adaptation, SB-379, which is state law, lets us work adaptation into the land-use element. If we're going to be updating the safety element, naturally those two elements have to speak towards each other. So we start looking at all the updates that we had originally before the Camp Fire, which also included SB-1000, which is the environmental justice component of general plan law. It came clear that we probably need to update not just one element or two elements, but look at it as a whole. We probably won't go through a huge comprehensive update of the general plan as we did in 2010, but I think it'll be, sort of, 2010 light in terms of updating everything that we need to do at one point and working with all those partners that are now really, I think, poised to help us out.
Bill: You've been clear that you're going to be looking at revising the safety element and looking at other elements of the county general plan to make the county a safer, more productive — what I call "build back safer." I am no longer building back normal. I am only build back safer. That's — when I work with my students in my hazard mitigation class, I said, "That is the fundamental principle that we work with now: build back safer." That has certain implications of: You really can't build in certain dangerous areas. You should try some new things that you hadn't done before. And Paradise as an incorporated city in California is going to go and try to have its own new plan update. And there'll be inevitable areas where you don't agree. So how do you influence the conversation? How will the conversation in the next year unfold?
Dan: Well, I think again, the situation does provide a lot of opportunity for us to talk to each other. I don't think that's happened quite yet, because it's only been five months.
Dan: I think that's going to play out over time as we are updating our general plan, we're going to reach out to the county — to the town. We're going to reach out to our own communities of Concow and Magalia. Those communities are very much in the mix in terms of what we need to do in the future and how to protect them and how to build back safely. So I think it's just going to be a county-wide dialogue about what needs to be done. And hopefully, the town will participate with us. We have not only those communities, but we have others up and down our county, in the foothills and in the mountains that are just as vulnerable. And they present the same concerns in terms of a loss of homes and life. So I think our county really just needs to look at [it] more holistically, and I hope the town will too.
Bill: OK. So, but because of this event, there are new environmental threats that you've mentioned already, such as water quality and preservation of agricultural lands. So the environmental threats then rise up and says, "Well, it's a new way of looking at the county. It's a new way of looking at this." And how are those going to be ranked in this kind of discussion, in the dialogue? I think you're absolutely right that you need the dialogue moving forward, so everyone can feel that they've had a voice, but they also understand what's at stake here. And is this going to be something that the county planning department will run the dialogue, or will you use some external mechanism to do that?
Dan: Yeah. Well, that would that be a good question for my director [Bill laughs]. But yeah, I think we probably will be a mixture of that. When we updated our general plan, we used a consultant, but we also had myself and our department very much engaged in the ground work. And so I think that's a really good mix, because a lot of times you can just bring in a consultant. They're not familiar with the territory and what's gone on, it's not going to be successful, so you need that connection with the local planners and the local folks. So a lot of public outreach, public input, community meetings are very — you know, we've found, during our process, that you can't shortcut it. You've got to get out there and talk to people. So I think that's going to be a big part of it.
Bill: So someone like the State of California, which has lots of resources in different ways, do they become part, an actor in this discussion? Because they have something to say, especially CAL FIRE, which is a state fire agency. This county has contracted for those fire safety services with them. Some counties have their own fire departments, but then you get the whole CAL FIRE resource group —
Dan: Oh, sure.
Bill: — picking for you, right?
Dan: Yeah, exactly.
Bill: Is that a benefit to you?
Dan: Oh, big benefit.
Dan: Yeah, they're a great resource for us. Again, their land-use emphasis now is going to be a big opportunity for us.
Bill: Prior to this tragic event, this tragic disaster, how did you work with the City of Paradise before? Was it a close relationship? Was it — they're independent, they're going to make their own decisions?
Dan: Yeah, I mean, we would meet, usually monthly. We have what's called the planning directors' meeting, and planning directors and their key staff get together and talk about planning issues and what's going on. Planning in Paradise, well, Paradise was mostly built out, so they didn't have a lot of things going on in terms of new development. And they were kind of constricted just by the topography of expanding, or annexing more. They actually didn't want to do — annex anything further, for the most part. So it was fairly, I would say, minimal interaction with Paradise, because there was not a lot of development activity going on between the county and the town. And we're — our own policies, in terms of the Upper Ridge, were that development shouldn't happen up there. That came out of our 2010 general plan. [We] actually zoned most of it for five-acre minimums so that that would not become developed until we find a better prescription.
Bill: OK. So what are the takeaways after — I mean, you're in the middle of this continuous disaster. I mean, the disaster hasn't finished, because you have all these people with no housing, and you're going to have to settle this temporary housing in a variety of ways. There isn’t one solution. There's many solutions that happen. So what are the takeaways or lessons learned for planners? What do planners need to know about pre-event planning, or looking at the tools that they have and which of the tools do you think should be strengthened or used more? What have you learned? What have you and the planning director learned from this event so far?
Dan: Well, to just — to be flexible, to reach out as much as possible to others, engage in those stakeholders that I mentioned, CAL FIRE and Cal OES and FEMA. I think part of it is a problem of not knowing the right question to ask. So they have all these agencies that are out there, they have tons of information, but you don't necessarily know who to ask or what to ask. And if you ask the right question, they're very good at providing you a great answer and great resources. But sometimes it's not knowing the right question or what is needed. So I think in that case, it's like, something like this will be very helpful.
Bill: In closing, I mean, is there a way to prevent the complete obliviation of a sizeable freestanding municipality? That's an overarching question.
Dan: Wow [laughs].
Bill: [Would] there would be something that planners could have done, or should be doing, to look to the far future? We have this in California in the seismic world, because they do seismic assessments in California by multiple expert scenarios of what's — what seismic event will happen, when would it happen, what size it is. So we have, at least on the seismic side, a fairly good sense of that, of looking toward the future and telling people about what we think is going to happen. In your sense, is there some other thing that you would have, and you and your staff and the people of the county, needed to know or to help prevent this in the future?
Dan: Well, as I said, I think our general plan and even prior to our general plan, there was an understanding that Paradise and Magalia and Concow were very vulnerable. And Concow had burned before, fires had come right up to the very edge of Paradise in prior years. They've been very lucky. I mean, they were just living on luck, basically. And we kind of knew this, that — this combination of factors. And it was identified under our general plan. As I said, we sort of planned for it in the zoning by limiting development as much as possible in the Upper Ridge. So possibly, I think, maybe working with our local hazard mitigation plan a little bit more, integrating our general plan policies of land-use into that plan. I see a lot of overlap, and we're doing that update right now of our LHMP over the next year or so. So I think that would be something that I think a lot of solutions could be bared out, with working with our partners and our Office of Emergency Management and planning what we do to make it easier if something happens.
Bill: That's a good answer. I have one other observation. You spoke about how fast the wind came and how fast the fire moved. In my looking at the subdivision review process and counties in California, I find the absence of any required wind studies, especially in microclimate areas. And we have a lot of those in California, especially along the coast. Coastal cities have lots of microclimates, little places. And wind studies are just absent. They're not required, asked for, and done. And since wind is the big driver of fast fires, so do you think those techniques should be enhanced and looked at more to understand the effect of wind on safety?
Dan: Sure. I think it's part of the problem. As they've investigated the Camp Fire and they found out that there were problems with the utility and that ended up igniting the super dry tinder that was in that vicinity and that spread so fast. Approaches to de-energizing those utility lines when high winds come up are a really good idea. Something I learned was that one of the fire captains indicated that we evacuate people when there's a threat of hurricane or something like that, but we don't necessarily evacuate people when we have this combination of a long summer without precipitation and high winds. Maybe we think about something along those lines in our hazard mitigations, is that maybe people should move out of those areas if they're very prone to those critical winds and during those times.
Bill: Well, certainly the County of Santa Barbara has now made enormous — in one year — advances in the evacuation system in Montecito and the debris flow. They've actually invested in science. They have a debris flow model now. They evacuated people a number of times in the last few months. So the utilization of more science, more information proves a useful tool. Dan, thank you very much for sharing your time, your experience, your frustrations of the terrible situation that happened in town of Paradise and all the work that you and your staff and your planning director have done to help the people right now and in the future to build back safer. So it's been a pleasure speaking with you, and all I can say is my best and I hope the planning community rallies around Butte County and its people to help you in a very productive and safe future.
Dan: Thank you, Bill.
Jim: Thanks for tuning in to another episode of the American Planning Association podcast. For resources on hazard mitigation and disaster recovery, visit planning.org/resilience. To hear past episodes of the APA podcast, visit planning.org/podcast. You can also subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher. Have an idea for a podcast? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.