Cal Fire compares Camp Fire destruction to World War II firestorm

Drone flyover shows Camp Fire destruction in Paradise

Flyover shows the destruction from the Camp Fire, California’s deadliest wildfire, in Paradise on Nov. 13, 2018.
Up Next
Flyover shows the destruction from the Camp Fire, California’s deadliest wildfire, in Paradise on Nov. 13, 2018.

It’s been some of the most striking imagery to come out of the Camp Fire.

Taken from the air, drone footage shows home after home burned to their foundations, surrounded by still-green trees largely untouched by the flames.

State fire investigators say that once the Camp Fire roared into Paradise on the morning of Nov. 8, it wasn’t the town’s dense urban tree canopy that caused it to become the most destructive in California history. The buildings themselves became the fire’s primary tinder as gusts of up to 50 mph pushed embers a mile ahead of the raging flames.

Investigators likened it to the horrifying destruction that ripped through Hamburg, Germany in 1943 following bombing raids by the British in World War II. That firestorm killed more than 40,000 civilians.

The stunning historical comparison is found in a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection report released last week that spells out how five firefighters — two of them state prison inmates — suffered burns fighting the Camp Fire.

Three of those injuries came on the afternoon of Nov. 8, several hours after the Camp Fire roared to life that morning near the area of Camp Creek Road and the remote town of Pulga east of Paradise.

How firefighters got burned

That afternoon, a Cal Fire strike team made up of inmate firefighters, overseen by Cal Fire captains, was several miles from the ignition point on Rattlesnake Flats Road, a dead-end dirt lane that cuts off of Clark Road, south of Paradise.

There, firefighters had planned to burn a fire break that would be used to stop the Camp Fire’s advance on the fire’s southern flank.

At about 2:15 p.m., a fire captain and three inmate firefighters were walking down Rattlesnake Flats toward Clark when the wind suddenly changed direction and pushed flames up to 15 feet high toward them. Their escape routes were cut off, and fences lined both sides of the road.

The captain told the inmates to “begin defensive firing” to burn an emergency fire break, but it was too late, investigators said.

As the flames burned over them, two of the inmate firefighters bolted in opposite directions. One was burned as he ran into a barbed wire fence. The other fell face down when one of his tools got hooked on the barbed wire as he tried to climb over the fence.

“The (fire) front overtook (the inmate), igniting his hair, beard and mustache resulting to burns to his face and neck,” the Cal Fire report reads. The captain suffered hands, arms, face and neck burns.

An ambulance raced to pick them up, and medics took them to a hospital for treatment. The inmates were treated and released, but the captain’s injuries were more severe. He was only recently released from UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, said Cal Fire Capt. Scott McLean. McLean declined to identify the burned firefighters.

The injuries to the other two firefighters happened early the next morning when a propane tank exploded in a Magalia neighborhood. A Cal Fire engine had been assigned to protect homes in the town north of Paradise.

At about 5 a.m., the engine stopped north of the intersection of Ponderosa Way and Chestnut Circle, and the firefighters got out and began unspooling hoses to spray spot fires that were threatening to burn down homes.

“Simultaneously and without warning” a 250 gallon propane tank exploded sending burning branches, pine cones, bark and molten aluminum nearly 70 yards to where the fire engine was parked and the firefighters were working, according to the report.

The blast hit one firefighter so hard he dropped to one knee and was momentarily disoriented, the report says. He suffered burns to his face and neck. A fire captain suffered similar injuries. They were able to drive their engine to Butte College where they were taken to a local hospital for treatment.

The five firefighters were the only firefighters seriously injured out of the 5,500 fire personnel assigned to fight the Camp Fire, McLean said.

Given the frantic firefight and unprecedented destruction, it could have been much worse for firefighters, McLean said.

“There’s an angel over everybody’s shoulder,” McLean said.

The fire killed 86 civilians, destroyed nearly 14,000 homes and burned 153,336 acres of land.

Camp Fire compared to World War II

In the injury report, Cal Fire provides a brief narrative of how the fire spread, though it doesn’t pinpoint a cause. Cal Fire says the fire remains under investigation.

Cal Fire radio traffic from the morning of Nov. 8 reported that at least part of the fire ignited under high-voltage power lines near the Poe Dam, part of a hydroelectric network owned by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. along the Feather River east of Paradise. Several residents have sued the utility alleging its equipment sparked the fire.

In the accident report, investigators said the area in which the fire started had been burned as recently as 2008, but once the fire jumped the west fork of the Feather River, it entered an area dense with trees, manzanita and oak underbrush “that had not been burned in recorded history.”

Once the fire raged into Paradise, the buildings themselves became the Camp Fire’s fuel, Cal Fire said.

“Tree canopies are mostly intact above destroyed structures, indicating the strength of the wind in these areas,” the report says. “It is evident in many areas occupied by high densities of residential and commercial structures that the heat from the fire was transferred horizontally to other structures and ground vegetation by strong winds.”

Cal Fire compared the conditions to the firestorm that ravaged the German city of Hamburg following British bombing raids in July 1943. The bombings were codenamed “Operation Gomorrah” named for the city God destroyed with fire and brimstone in the biblical book of Genesis.

War historians say eight miles of the city burned and 40,000 people died as the flames spread across Hamburg pushed by winds powerful enough to knock a person off their feet.

Cal Fire says that in the first 12 hours, the Camp Fire burned 14 miles and more than 55,000 acres — a rate of about 76 acres per minute.

Ryan Sabalow covers environment, general news and enterprise and investigative stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. Before joining The Bee in 2015, he was a reporter at The Auburn Journal, The Redding Record Searchlight and The Indianapolis Star.