Inside the most destructive fire in American history—and why the West's cities and towns will keep on burning
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Sometime before 7 A.M. on November 8, Kit Bailey, an assistant chief with the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, got a call about a new wildfire that sounded ominous. It had started 30 minutes earlier on a ridge above Pulga, an old Northern California gold-mining town notched into the windy and wooded Feather River Canyon.
Bailey, a 57-year-old German-Irish man with gray hair and a handlebar mustache, knew the area well. During a 39-year career that included stints as a hotshot, smoke jumper, and a chief officer on a Type 1 team, he’d fought many “stubborn fucking fires” in the canyon. Tucked into the Sierra Nevada foothills, the place had always provided ideal habitat for blazes, which could stay fueled for months by the grasses and pines clinging to the gorge’s steep walls.
The Camp Fire—named for a tributary of the Feather River—didn’t stay confined for long. A northwest wind blowing at 40 miles an hour pushed flames into a grassy swale on the canyon’s north slopes. Within minutes, 700 feet of hillside turned to ash. Soon the fire vaulted into a stand of ponderosa pines on the plateau north of the Feather. Smoke and heat tugged burning needles off branches. Then the wind snatched them up, and a blizzard of flaming matches was suddenly cartwheeling thousands of feet into the air. The needles landed a mile or more ahead of the main blaze, and new hot spots bloomed. The fire leapfrogged north and west, burning an area the size of Central Park every eight minutes.
Concow, one of dozens of unincorporated communities in the Sierra foothills, sits on a lake that was just four miles downwind of Pulga, and houses there were burning by 7:35 A.M. Awakened by flames in their driveways, some families jumped into the lake to survive. They spent hours on a small island, shivering through hypothermia in the reflection of burning homes. Many of the community’s 700 people were severely burned and at least eight died, including 48-year-old Jesus Fernandez. Smoke killed him outside his house, likely while he tried to catch his dog.
Meanwhile, the fire sprinted on.
“Go hard,” Bailey’s chief told him when he called for an update. Bailey drove north, his speedometer quivering into the nineties. His main concern was that the fire would do exactly what it was already doing: dash across the plateau where Concow sat, hurdle the west branch of the Feather, and land in the pines on the next plateau to the north. This area was home to Paradise, a town of almost 27,000 retirees and families. It contained 20 churches and an equal number of mobile home parks, a Kmart, a KFC, a hospital, and nine schools that served 3,500 kids—many of whom were just now climbing aboard school buses for the day.
In the months before the Camp Fire broke out, Northern California was experiencing similar conditions that led to the terrible October 2017 fires in the Sonoma Valley, where wind-driven blazes destroyed a then record 8,920 homes and killed 44 people.
Dry grass was a culprit in both disasters. On a research farm about 30 miles south of Paradise, scientists from the University of California’s Natural Resource Team have, since 1978, measured how much grass or fine fuels grow every year—a critical factor in how quickly a fire spreads during dry months. Both 2017 and 2018 saw banner crops of grass, but with important differences in how they germinated and were nourished by rain.
Last year’s grass boom happened because of the wettest winter the Sacramento area had seen in 122 years. The 2018 crop emerged thanks to one damp month. Coming on the heels of a winter that provided far-below-average snowpack, March and April were warm and relatively wet—peak growing season. The grasses rioted; last spring, the U.C. Davis team harvested a bit more than 5,500 pounds of grass per acre, almost twice the normal amount.
Then conditions worsened drastically. The last measurable rain was on May 25, and July was the warmest on record. The spring’s green grass turned brown and crispy. According to Brent Wachter, a Northern California forecaster who specializes in fire-related weather monitoring, the Sierra foothills became “a tall mat of woven fire starters.”
Even before the Camp Fire, wildfires had caused historic damage. By November 7, they’d burned an astonishing 1.3 million acres in Northern California alone—about 15 percent of the total land burned nationwide in 2018. That figure included a record-setting blaze that blackened almost half a million acres in Mendocino County, along with another cluster near the town of Redding, 90 minutes north of Paradise, that destroyed 1,604 buildings, killed eight, and created a little-known meteorological phenomenon known as a fire tornado. Those occur when the hot air lifting off flames creates a vortex when it’s hit by the prevailing breeze.
Then came the fierce dry winds. By late October, the high-pressure system that scorched California throughout the summer had drifted out over the Pacific—a seasonal trend that usually signals relief. But in the first days of November, that air slid east and south over Oregon before tucking in behind California’s Sierra Nevada on November 7. Next it shifted west. Around midnight, this huge balloon of warm, dry air bent over the crest of the Sierra and deflated, sending winds howling down the long western slope of the mountains and toward the Sacramento Valley.
The exact cause of the Camp Fire remains under investigation, but defective power lines may have provided the spark. Not long after 6 A.M. on November 8, a Cal Fire crew stationed at nearby Jarbo Gap drove into the Feather River Canyon after a fire was reported near a malfunctioning line—a common cause of wildfires, especially in extreme winds. Less than 15 minutes later, at 6:33, the crew’s captain, Matt McKenzie, was standing on a small dam on the Feather, looking north at a glowing spot on a ridge he couldn’t reach. There was no road access. The fire was already burning ten acres.
“This has got potential for a major incident,” McKenzie told a dispatcher. He called for as many additional firefighters as could be found. But even if air tankers, engines, and hotshot crews had all been pre-positioned just moments away, it wouldn’t have mattered. Not in those conditions.
Gary Glotfelty, a wiry 75-year-old retired firefighter who lived on Paradise’s northeast tip, was just finishing his coffee on November 8 when his phone rang. It was the caregiver for his disabled 42-year-old son, Cody, who lived in a group home in the middle of town. They were now evacuating to the KFC, the caregiver said, a predetermined safety zone.
This worried Glotfelty. He left his wife, Rhoda, at home and rushed to pick up their son. But this wouldn’t be the usual four-minute trip. By 8:30 A.M., just two hours after the fire started, every side street in Paradise was packed with cars funneling onto the three roads that exited town to the west. The first major traffic jam was reported around 9 A.M. on Clark Road.
Most people had heard of the fire through texts or calls. Some heard about it from the police, who were driving through town, using loudspeakers to tell residents to “Get out now!” Others got the word from neighbors going door to door, after they’d seen flames from their breakfast table, or when the walls of their mobile homes became too hot to touch.
Glotfelty turned left, edging his Ford 150 truck into traffic that was slowly inching forward. Then he saw fire behind the Christian Missionary Alliance Church, near Paradise’s town center. After 50 years in the field, Glotfelty had seen more destructive fire than almost anybody on the planet. Now he was a sitting duck in a traffic jam, stuck between the 200-foot flames of the main blaze—ripping toward town from the West Branch of the Feather River—and a spot fire in the middle of town.
The Camp Fire entered Paradise’s eastern edge at around 8 A.M. and kept riding the wind to the northwest. Swarming embers landed on pine needles piled on lawn furniture or in gutters of the trailers in Pine Grove Mobile Home Park, near where Glotfelty had first seen flames. Those embers glowed to life and, soon, one trailer in a park of 76 was burning. The radiant heat bubbled the siding on the mobile homes next door, and those caught fire, too. Within two minutes, entire rooms were engulfed. Winds gusting into the fifties blasted overhead, flinging embers from new fires downwind toward buildings and trees. It didn’t seem to matter how well-prepared a home was for fire. The Gross family lived on an immaculately cleared compound in homes built of stucco and concrete. The embers poured through the vents. They fled with their houses burning behind them.
As Glotfelty sat in his truck, the skies went black. Headlights blinked on. People started honking, pounding their steering wheels, but where could they go?
The Camp Fire catastrophe was 150 years in the making, and the reasons behind it are both complex and simple. The West is hotter and drier than it was a century ago. There’s more fuel to feed the flames, and more people living in places that are more prone to burn than at any point in American history.
Back before California gained statehood, fires roamed wild over 4.5 million acres every year, creating, at Paradise’s elevation, a forest of widely spaced pines that shaded native grass. California’s Native American inhabitants intentionally started most of those burns to manage undergrowth. When the tribes were conquered around the time of the 1849 California Gold Rush, so were most of the flames.
Lightning, of course, still started some fires, as it always had. Usually accompanied by rain from thunderstorms, lightning sparked smoldering fires that were relatively easy to deal with when the state of California first organized a wildland firefighting force in the 1940s. Meanwhile, Smokey Bear got busy schooling a generation that “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires.” Over time, the annual acreage burned shrank to a fraction of the historic norms. But the forest didn’t stop growing. Without regular fires, places in the foothills near Paradise have grown dense with as many as 400 pines per acre where a century ago only 40 pines per acre would have stood.
While the forests thickened, California boomed. The slapdash villages that 49ers built atop ridges to support the Gold Rush have long since been transformed into towns like Paradise. Engineers turned mining trails into highways. They plugged the state’s wild rivers with 1,500 dams and connected turbines to the great coastal cities, using 210,000 miles of power lines strung from the mountains over pine forests, grasslands, and chaparral. This year, all that fuel was dried by the hottest July in state history and a long-term drought.
Until recently, California’s public utilities were often held liable for the damages caused by their equipment, scattered through all that fuel. According to The New York Times, after the 2017 fires in Sonoma, those damages could total $15 billion for Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), the utility that provides power to all of Northern California.
The burden was so great that lawmakers and PG&E stockholders began to fear bankruptcy. But on September 21, 2018, the state government propped up the utility with the passage of SB-901. This was a case of lawmakers trying to make the best of a grim situation. Northern California couldn’t let its sole utility provider fail. Nor could it allow PG&E to keep increasing rates just to rebuild the cities that utility lines had caused to burn. So SB-901 said that PG&E’s 5.4 million ratepayers wouldn’t have to shoulder the financial burden of repairing the cities ravaged by fires started by power lines. At least not alone. Instead, after power lines cause a disaster, the state would conduct a stress test to see how much of the damages the company could pay and still remain solvent. The amount left would be rolled into state bonds and sold on the open market. Lawmakers also added the stipulation that PG&E do a better job preparing for wildfires, including some things the utility was already doing.
In the past few years, the company has hired its own private firefighting forces to tamp out the flames its lines start, as other utilities in California have done. It also hired a meteorological staff dedicated to forecasting wind and heat events. When such weather phenomena appeared, PG&E could power down before the winds peaked.
That didn’t happen before the Camp Fire, though.
Kit Bailey felt like a salmon swimming upstream. Still in the flats in the northern Sacramento Valley, he hit a thousand cars pouring bumper-to-bumper in both lanes down Clark Road. The fire column ahead was massive, eerily black, and bent parallel to the ground as it billowed smoke over the valley in volumes that would damage the state’s air quality for weeks. Bailey could see the fire rearing up. He leaned on the horn, then he ramped his truck onto the sloping shoulder to bypass traffic. By now, it was clear that recon was no longer his primary mission. He was driving to Paradise to save lives.
By the time Bailey made it to Paradise, at 9 A.M., the town was midnight-dark from smoke. On Pearson Street, one of the three streets that cross the town, a man wearing a black leather jacket, black jeans, and long hair flagged him down. He’d pulled his RV into a side street because his battery had died. He said his wife was sick inside.
Bailey grabbed a flashlight from behind his seat and jumped out, embers and debris whipping through the smoke, in winds of 48 miles per hour. He attached jumper cables. The RV’s engine turned over, coughed, and never fired.
“You’re out of gas,” Bailey yelled to the driver. The man had a gas can. “Find some,” Bailey said, pushing the can into his hands. “Siphon, steal, do whatever you need to do, but get gas. I’ll be back to check on you in an hour. I’ve got to get other people.”
The people of Paradise took fire safety more seriously than many in the Sierra foothills. Since recordkeeping started in 1911, wildfires have burned almost half of Butte County, which contains the city. Some years were worse than others. In 2008, the Humboldt Fire scorched 87 homes on Paradise’s northern edge. The town evacuated and learned something scary in the process: with only four roads leading into and out of Paradise from the south, it took three hours for people to flee, and every evacuation road caught fire.
After 2008’s near miss, the two local Fire Safe Councils, chapters of a statewide group formed after a fire killed 25 and burned 2,800 buildings in Oakland in 1991, redoubled their efforts to make Paradise safer. They started programs to help residents upgrade their vents so that embers were less likely to drop through them and burn homes. They raised money to thin the forest on the town’s perimeter, mailed reminders citywide telling people to pack before a fire struck, and conducted evacuation drills. Everybody knew that the roads woefully underserved a town of 26,000. But with a tax base tied to a median home value of $205,500—cheap compared with the state’s $443,400 median—upgrading evacuation routes wasn’t realistic. Paradise’s residents would have to do what they could.
One improvement was a new evacuation system. In an attempt to limit the number of cars on roads, evacuation orders were staggered geographically. But the phone-based system could only contact people who had shared their numbers with fire departments. Fewer than 8,000 people had done so, and on November 8, when the city issued its first evacuation orders shortly before 8 A.M., only a fraction of those people got the notices, because officials only called the eastern quarter of town.
It took more than an hour for Gary Glotfelty to reach his son at the KFC. Cody was standing beside his caregiver in the smoky dark. Their greeting was brief. “Cody, get in the truck, We’re getting out of here,” he said. By then, Glotfelty couldn’t go back up Clark Road because of traffic going south. So he looped back on side streets. West on Billie to Oakway. North on Oakway to Wagstaff. East on Wagstaff to Clark—still jammed. On Wagstaff, houses were ablaze. His wife was still at home, much closer to the main fire than they were. Walking was faster than driving. He parked his truck at the Cypress Meadows nursing home on Clark. Cody used to be a track star in the Special Olympics, so they ran. On the shoulder of stop-and-go traffic on Clark, dragging behind a suitcase that his son’s caregiver had packed for the evacuation, a 75-year-old man and his disabled boy ran home with fire closing in on both sides.
By this time, just after 9:30 A.M., most of Paradise’s electrical and communications infrastructure had blinked out: lights, land lines, internet, cell service. By evening, firefighters would completely drain the city’s water supply. The wind knocked down trees and power lines, which fell across side streets and main roads. Cars, idling for hours, ran out of gas and blocked or slowed traffic.
The town’s hospital, which sits on the canyon rim above the west branch of the Feather, was especially vulnerable. Engine crews had prioritized protecting it. While they hosed down the hospital, nurses evacuated patients into ambulances. One ambulance caught fire as it fled. The patient inside survived only because passengers were pulled from the flames by an off-shift doctor. He wheeled the patient into a garage that firefighters had turned into a makeshift clinic. But the nurses couldn’t get everybody out of the hospital. The critical patients had to remain behind, and nurses volunteered to stay with them. One wing of the hospital caught fire and collapsed. By a miracle of great effort and good luck, firefighting stopped the blaze before it spread to the main building.
Paradise would burn for more than 24 hours. People took refuge in the parking lots at churches and Kmart, in a football field, in antique stores, and in school buses packed with terrified and disoriented children. Some people died in flames, having never left their homes. Others died in the streets from inhaling smoke and the poisonous gases venting off houses and businesses. Others died when their cars caught fire. In the traffic jams, which vehicles burned and which didn’t was pure happenstance.
Bailey kept driving. He picked up a Latino man who was barefoot, who was holding his pants up because he didn’t have a belt, and moving along using a walker. “Get in!” Bailey yelled, then he whipped the truck through debris and past engulfed mobile home parks toward the Ace Hardware on Clark and Pearson, which had become an impromptu drop point. Firefighters had used their engines to form a blockade around the parking lot and were hosing down flames closing in from all directions. Along with other first responders, Bailey was scooping people up wherever he found them and dropping them at the Ace, where police could shuttle them out of the city.
During one of his laps around town, Bailey found a young Asian woman who spoke broken English. She was outside the fire’s edge on Clark Road, hiking into Paradise in nice jeans, open-toed shoes, and a short-sleeve blouse.
“What are you doing? Everything OK?” Bailey asked. She was crying and kept saying, “My parents, my parents.” She got in. Bailey took her a mile closer to Paradise, where her parents lived on the edge of town. They drove through wind-driven fire, big and aggressive. They passed a lifted white pickup truck that had driven through an iron gate and rear-ended a Prius.
When they pulled up to the gate of her parents’ house, her mother, who looked 80, was in smoke beneath an oak tree, raking smoldering grass by her fence. The daughter got out. The mother and daughter hugged and cried. Then the mother yelled at her daughter to get the hell out of there. The mother stayed behind with her Rottweiler, two cows, and a rake, while Bailey took the daughter back to her car. When he drove into Paradise to collect others, a power line fell across the road and broke his windshield. He jumped out, cut it with bolt cutters, and drove on.
Eventually, he made it back to the RV where he’d met the man in a black leather jacket that morning. He had no way of knowing if he and his sick wife had escaped, but the RV hadn’t moved. It was now ash and melted metal.
When Glotfelty and his son made it to their house, they could see 30-to-40-foot flames curling up behind the structure to the northeast. Glotfelty’s neighbor had already laid out the fire hoses that Glotfelty kept in a shed since 2008, when that year’s fire had nearly destroyed the place. His wife rushed out the door. Glotfelty looked left. Fifty-foot flames were now standing up in four acres of blackberry bushes near the house. Fire was burning the mobile homes visible out their back door, and it was burning oaks visible out their front door. “Get him out of here!” Glotfelty said to his wife about their son. He was staying. The last thing she saw in the rearview mirror was Glotfelty igniting his drip torch and laying a strip of fire—a final stand—around their home.
Late in the night of November 8, the winds began to die and the Camp Fire slowed in the grass and flats outside of Chico. By then, 55,000 acres had burned in a pattern that looked like a windsock. The blaze had spread 17 miles from its ignition point outside Pulga. Paradise was the biggest of the communities that burned. Concow, Centerville, Magalia, Irish Town, and Hell Town were also devastated and mostly gone.
The toll from that day is staggering. Cal Fire initially estimated that 2,000 structures had been lost and that nobody died. Since then, the numbers have climbed daily. It’s now at 13,972 homes destroyed, 528 businesses, and 4,293 other buildings. Cadaver dogs, which are the best means for finding cremated bodies, have had to sniff through every burned structure or vehicle. So far, 86 have died, many of those in or next to cars on evacuation routes, but most in their homes. With people still missing and hospitalized, the death toll will continue to climb.
Chico’s Walmart parking turned into a camp for many of the more than 50,000 people displaced by the Camp Fire. Refugees spent their Thanksgiving eating meals of donated food, then retired to tents pitched on blacktop.
On a cold morning three days after Paradise was lost, Bailey and his staff gathered in an operational trailer parked at the incident command post at Chico’s fairgrounds. Some 3,000 firefighters were already on the job. Bailey looked exhausted. He’d spent his past year living like a deployed soldier. He fought the North Bay fires in October 2017 that killed 44. He’d also fought the Thomas Fire in Ventura in December, which burned 1,063 buildings and a then record 280,000 acres; the Carr Fire in August in Redding, which razed 1,604 buildings, killed three firefighters, and sent eight townspeople to their graves; and at least seven more “monster megafires” in between. Now there was the Camp, deadlier and more destructive than all of those combined.
The Camp Fire is the blaze that experts have been warning about for a generation. When search and rescue teams finish collecting the dead, the closest comparison will be to fires like the Big Burn that killed at least 85 in Idaho in 1910. But for students of fire like Bailey, the Camp Fire isn’t a relic; it’s the present and the future. Each of the ten most destructive fires in state history burned since 1991. More than half of those burned since 2015.
At the same time the Camp Fire leveled Paradise, another urban-interface firestorm—as Bailey has started to call this new breed of blaze—ripped through Malibu. The Woolsey Fire destroyed 1,643 buildings and killed three. That morning, President Trump tweeted about these fires being wholly preventable through better forest management. Yet once the Camp Fire was burning, no management could have prevented disaster. Paradise is ash because a mat of grass, dried out by climate change—167-plus days with no rain—caught fire during a sustained 40-mile-an-hour wind.
President Trump was right that forest management is part of the fix. As is rewriting building codes so that all new construction is fire wise, tightening and diversifying regulations on greenhouse emissions, and modernizing the insurance industry so that homeowners are incentivized to harden their houses against fires. Lighting more prescribed fires to decrease the intensity of the burns that do go rogue will also help. But even a vigorous combination of these measures would only slow the damage caused by megafires, not stop it. Like coastal cities facing rising seas, the reality is that 39 million people now live in a tinderbox that’s only getting more flammable.
Bailey, like many firefighters, thinks the best way to limit the damage is to limit ignitions, particularly during peak winds. That means fixing the power-line problem, which will be a long and expensive challenge. After the disaster on November 8, PG&E faced insolvency. If its lines are found to be the source of the Camp Fire, as they were in last year’s Tubbs Fire that burned Santa Rosa, the utility could be staring at an additional $15 billion in liability—bringing the total up to $30 billion in just two years. The company’s insurers would pay only 10 percent of that. On November 7, PG&E’s stock was steady at $50 a share. A week after the Camp Fire, it was at $17 and falling.
Then, on November 15, the president of California’s Public Utilities Commission saved the company by declaring that it would be using the authority provided by Senate Bill 901 to pass any potential costs to taxpayers. If PG&E’s power lines caused the Camp Fire, its customers will pay to fix or clean up Paradise. Many firefighters view this as a criminal bailout. But what choice did California have? PG&E is the state’s largest utility. If it failed, the Bay Area, the state capital, and five million homes could go dark.
In the trailer, Bailey and three more chiefs from California’s Office of Emergency Operations began to list other towns they considered just as vulnerable as Paradise, including Wrightwood, Idyllwild, Devore, Placerville, Nevada City, Santa Cruz, Scott’s Valley, and San Luis Obispo. “They’re everywhere, and not just in California,” Bailey said, before taking a moment to look at his boots.
That afternoon, he drove back to Paradise to check on Glotfelty. When Bailey pulled up to the house, a PG&E utility truck was moving a power pole that had fallen and blocked the driveway. Smoke was puffing up from what had been blackberries, and a California quail shuffled beneath a burnt oak and bobbed its head.
Glotfelty’s house and that of his neighbors survived. They were the few standing buildings in a city that looked like Dresden after it was bombed in World War II. Glotfelty’s backfire-and-nozzle work had protected the houses, and he’d survived the firestorm in the safety of the burned fuel it had created. “We saved the insurance company $700,000 in houses,” Glotfelty told Bailey, but he was already regretting his heroics. Services wouldn’t return to Paradise for years, and they may never come back. Yet he now owned a home here that he couldn’t sell, and without money from insurance, he couldn’t afford to buy another somewhere else. “I’m too old to start over again,” Glotfelty said.
After three days in Paradise without a phone, he’d just learned that his wife and son made it out alive. Cal Fire had caught and corralled them and 140 others in a parking lot on the corner of Skyway and Clark. For the rest of the day, they huddled in the smoke, shivering in winds up to 40 miles an hour. Cody, an Eagle Scout, had handed out the clothes his caregiver had packed in his evacuation bag so that people had something to hold over their faces.
Glotfelty was now off to Orville to see his son and wife. Before he left, he pulled from his pocket a silver dollar he’d saved from his days pumping gas in Reno in the sixties. A small gift, he said, pushing it into Bailey’s palm. “To remind you of this event,” Glotfelty said and he headed out of Paradise.