NPR reporter will share insights in Basalt of the devastating Camp Fire and implications for the West
IF YOU GO
What: Lessons from Paradise, a talk with NPR reporter Kirk Siegler
When: Friday, 6:30 p.m., doors open at 6 p.m.
Where: The Temporary in Basalt
Tickets: $20 for members of Aspen Public Radio, $25 for non-members
Go to http://www.tacaw.org to purchase online
National Public Radio reporter Kirk Siegler has immersed himself in coverage of California’s Camp Fire since it decimated the city of Paradise and the surrounding area five months ago.
The fire was the deadliest and most destructive in California’s history. It destroyed nearly 19,000 structures and caused 85 known deaths.
Siegler, a veteran reporter who worked at Aspen Public Radio in 2006-07, believes the Camp Fire could be remembered as something more than a deadly disaster. Its magnitude might force the nation to look at its firefighting policies and the states of the West to address issues related to wildfires.
“These fires are getting more frequent, more intense, larger, more destructive and more deadly,” Siegler said. “I think it’s an open question about what happens in Paradise — is it going to be a game changer?”
Siegler will return to the Roaring Fork Valley on Friday to discuss the Camp Fire and its broader implications. He will talk with APR Executive Director Tammy Terwelp at 6:30 p.m. at The Temporary in Basalt. He gave a preview of his talk Wednesday on a telephone interview from his office in Los Angeles.
“What happened up there opens a whole host of issues that have been festering in this country more broadly for a while: How we respond to fires, how we fight them, how we allow development to continue rather unabated in the high-risk zones and how to retrofit (existing) buildings in the high-risk zones,” Siegler said.
“This fire has exposed how vulnerable rural communities are in particular to disasters, especially when it comes to housing,” he continued. “All these communities have watched what happened in Paradise and said, ‘Well, that could easily be us.’ And what it could mean for our community if we had displacement of tens of thousands of people overnight. Where would they go?”
The conversation is appropriate for the Roaring Fork Valley after the Lake Christine Fire came close to sweeping through Basalt on July 3 and 4 last summer, then changing direction and nearly destroying El Jebel the night of July 4.
The fire ultimately charred 12,588 acres, destroyed three homes and cost $17.1 million to extinguish.
Aspen Fire Chief Ron Balentine told The Aspen Times last fall that his research indicated there are about 18,000 acres in the Aspen Fire District that are located in what’s known as the wildland-urban interface, the areas where development mixes into the forest. There are 5,844 structures in those areas valued at $26 billion. About 98 percent of the population in the Aspen district lives in the wildland-urban interface, he said.
Eagle County Wildfire Mitigation Coordinator Eric Lovgren said it’s easier to calculate the number of structures that aren’t in the wildland-urban interface in the Roaring Fork Valley portion of the county than those that are within the zone.
Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Chief Scott Thompson said earlier this month that there must be a greater emphasis on creating defensible space around properties and adopting building codes to create safer conditions.
“We just don’t have enough fire trucks to protect all the structures,” he said.
Siegler said the Paradise, California, situation was a classic case of a city sprouting in the forest. People flocked to the area because it was affordable, by the state’s standards, and they sought a rural lifestyle. Although the area was first settled 150 years ago, it wasn’t incorporated until 1978. By the time of the fire the population was about 27,000.
About 90 percent of the housing stock burned in the fire, Siegler said. Many survivors remain homeless. Many of the fire victims died because they were unable to escape flames on inadequate roads.
Paradise was not unique, Siegler said. As a reporter who focuses on the rural West, he’s seen the same conditions throughout the region.
NPR is letting him report long term on Paradise’s plight because it’s still a major crisis there and to shine a light on national and regional policies. For example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency often reports to the scene of a disaster and stays for roughly 18 months, in part to make it easier for people to rebuild. The question doesn’t get asked about whether it should be easy to rebuild in a high-risk area, Siegler said.
In the case of wildfires, there hasn’t been incentive to change policies because the federal government shoulders the cost of firefighting and recovery. The whole issue of private property rights get tangled in the web, he noted.
“At some point, is the federal government not going to be able to respond to all these wildfires and pay for fire suppression and recovery?” he asked.
The big-picture issues are on the mind of firefighters and other emergency responders in the field, according to Siegler.
“They get it,” he said. “It’s often a disconnect with Washington, D.C.”
After the Camp Fire, the right wing criticized California for allegedly not managing its forests properly and not allowing enough logging, Siegler said. The left wing was insisting it was all about climate change.
“Sure, it’s about climate change but it’s also about we’ve suppressed wildfires for 100 or so years and that’s led to the build-up of fuels to extraordinary levels,” Siegler said. “It’s also the amount of development that’s happened in these places.”
He will return in April to Paradise and nearby Chico, where many fire refugees are living, for another round of NPR coverage.
“Five months after the fire it’s still a major crisis up there,” he said. “It’s hard to overstate the level of destruction.”
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