The Future of Wildfire Fighting Is on All of Us
In a new era of menacing blazes, there are lessons to be learned from the people who stay and defend their properties
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The night before Paradise burned, Kathryn and Doug Houston had been up late dealing with a malfunctioning fire alarm. So Kathryn was feeling tired as she headed out to the barn to feed the chickens and her old horse, Gus, at around 7 A.M. It was a cold and windy morning, November 8, 2018, and she was hoping for rain; it was late in the year for it to be so dry. She barely made it out the door when she spotted a plume of black smoke off in the distance, snaking up out of a canyon to the northeast—the first wisps of what would become the deadliest wildfire in the U.S. in a century. Kathryn immediately turned around and headed back inside.
“In November, we weren’t thinking we were going to get a big fire,” she told me. “I just thought, This is not right.”
The Houstons’ home sat on a dead-end country road two miles south of Paradise, California, a small town in the heavily forested foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The two-story white house, with its gabled roof and covered porches, reminded Kathryn of the farmhouses she had grown up around in Kansas, but the property was very California as well, with an in-ground swimming pool and a massive solar array. Perched on a ridgeline between two steeply sloping canyons, it offered views all the way out to the rich agricultural lands of the Sacramento Valley, roughly a thousand feet below.
Doug was inside, working out in their home gym, as he usually did in the mornings before commuting to his job as chancellor of the Yuba Community College District, about an hour and 15 minutes away in Yuba City. He was scheduled to be at a trustee’s meeting that day, but as soon as Kathryn relayed the news about the smoke, he emailed his office to let them know he might not make it in.
The Houstons, both in their early sixties, were not the kind of people to panic in the face of an emergency. Kathryn, a veterinarian, had been raised on a farm and took pride in her planning abilities. Doug, who served as an Army combat engineer earlier in life, still approached most situations with an eye for tactical advantage; his colleagues liked to tease him about his habit of referring to everything as a mission. He turned on his phone’s police-scanner app and heard emergency officials discussing whether they might need to issue an evacuation order for Paradise. The couple immediately started getting ready. They knew that fires could move quickly in their area, and they didn’t want to be caught off guard.
Doug went outside to take down the shade sails suspended over the patio, while Kathryn gathered up all their important documents in case they needed to leave, then went through the house videoing their belongings to support an insurance claim if their home burned down. Before long, the Butte County sheriff started ordering evacuations for the northern parts of Paradise, and by the time a burning piece of Tyvek floated into the Houstons’ yard around 10 A.M., it was clear the fire was moving rapidly in their direction.
Soon Doug heard a fire crew over the scanner calling for a bulldozer to push abandoned cars out of the roadway.
“At that point, it hit me that they weren’t able to get people out—and they weren’t going to be able to get the fire crews in,” Doug said.
There were only a handful of roads in and out of Paradise, and they had become gridlocked as virtually all of the town’s roughly 27,000 residents tried to escape. Doug knew they had a decision to make: leave immediately and hope they wouldn’t get caught in traffic, or commit to staying and defending their property.
“I remember actually assessing at that point. The horse pasture is safe—it’s mineral dirt. We’ve got the pool. The pumps are both running. The generators are running,” Doug said. “OK, we’re not going anywhere. We’re staying right here. We’re going to stay and defend.”