Half of California’s 10 worst wildfires have struck in the last two years. We look at the recent Camp Fire, which is the deadliest and most destructive in state history. And we revisit an investigation from earlier this year looking at how extreme wildfires are breaking our emergency response systems. Produced in partnership with KQED.


Reporters: Lisa Pickoff-White, Marisa Lagos and Sukey Lewis of KQED and Patrick Michels and Eric Sagara

Lead Producer: Stan Alcorn

Editor: Brett Myers

Special Thanks: Samantha Fields, Sonja Hutson and Peter Arcuni


Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Just over two weeks ago, a terrible new ritual began near the small town of Paradise, California. Late in the afternoon, local officials walk up to a microphone, and give an update.


Speaker 2:Today, an additional six human remains were recovered, which brings … Today, during the course of our search, an additional eight human remains were recovered.


Speaker 3:The number of people who we’re still looking for, or uncounted for, has increased to …


Al Letson:More than 10,000 homes in Paradise burned to the ground, in what’s become known as the Camp Fire. It’s the worst wildfire in state history. We won’t know the final death count until emergency personnel can complete their search. Hundreds of people went missing. The fire started at about 6:30 in the morning on November 8th, in a remote area about 15 miles outside of Paradise.


Speaker 4:Possibly in the area of Camps Creek Road …


Al Letson:And it moved very quickly.


Speaker 4:There’s a possible power line hazard.


Al Letson:Overwhelming residents and emergency responders.


Speaker 4:We are inundated with 911s right now, unable to do anything but maybe assistance, we’ll try to help.


Al Letson:KQED’s Sukey Lewis has been listening to dispatch calls and piecing together a timeline of what happened in the first minutes and hours of the Camp Fire. She joins us. Hi Sukey.


Sukey Lewis:Hey Al.


Al Letson:So how did this fire get out of control so quickly?


Sukey Lewis:Well it was the conditions. It was really windy and hot and dry. But it was also the location of where this fire sparked. It was way out down this rural road that was nearly impassable. And the first firefighter to respond drives out as close as he can get. He gets eyes on the fire within 10 minutes of the first report. But he can tell by looking at it that fighting this fire is gonna be really really tough.


Speaker 6:Eyes on the vegetation fire. It’s gonna be very difficult to access, Camp Creek Road is nearly inaccessible.


Sukey Lewis:So they can’t get to it. He actually sends another firefighter to scout out a way to get to the fire. But in the meantime they decide they need to evacuate this little tiny town called Polga.


Speaker 6:Yeah, we’ve made notifications in Polga, and now we’re coming out.


Al Letson:Now while all of this is going on, were people alerted in the town of Paradise?


Sukey Lewis:So people in the town of Paradise had not gotten alerts as of 8:00 AM. They send out these first alerts at that point, and declare a mandatory evacuation for many areas in Paradise. But again, this is an opt-in system, and we do know that the sheriff did not use the wireless emergency alerts that could’ve let everybody know pretty quickly that this was going on. Those are those amber-style alerts that hijack your phone and make a loud noise.


Sukey Lewis:So many people did not get alerts. And they have to keep expanding these evacuation orders, even as they’re trying to get people out of them.


Speaker 7:All units, be advised, the town of Paradise is under mandatory evacuation. The town of Paradise is under mandatory evacuation.


Al Letson:So mandatory evacuations means that law enforcement starts going door to door to get people out, right?


Sukey Lewis:Yeah, so they’re going door to door, but already there are reports of people who are getting trapped. Including firefighters and first responders. On the tape I heard so many of these reports of first responders getting stuck inside the fire line, and they had to evacuate hospitals, schools, and even once first responders made it in to people who were trapped, they still had to get them out to safety.


Al Letson:So I’ve read that Paradise actually did have plans for evacuation. Did that help streamline this incident?


Sukey Lewis:Their plans were pretty much overwhelmed. As everybody rushed to get out of town, traffic becomes this huge problem. And they tried to shut down the main arteries leading out of town to have all traffic going outbound to help people escape from the fire. But even just setting that up becomes really chaotic. People are abandoning their cars, at one point they have to actually take another giant truck to push cars out of the way to clear the way for residents who are trying to stream out of this town and escape from this fire.


Sukey Lewis:And the next big problem that I see, Al, is that people can’t get in to help. And as we know now, many people did not make it out.


Al Letson:In some ways, hearing this unfold, it brings this horrible feeling of deja vu. I mean just last year, when we talked about the worst wildfires in state history, the North Bay Firestorm.


Sukey Lewis:Yes. And so many issues are the same. Like as a reporter for me in many ways it feels like I’m having to tell the same story over again. From the evacuation alerts that are not getting out to many of the people who are the victims of this fire who are elderly and disabled. And it’s just heartbreaking.


Al Letson:Sukey’s been covering more of these fires, because … well they keep getting worse. Last year at this time, she and her colleagues at KQED, Marisa Lagos and Lisa Pickoff-White, reported on a fire that scorched wine country in Napa and Sonoma counties. They found that emergency response systems, including Cal Fire, the state agency that responds to wildfire, aren’t built to keep up with the fires that are burning hotter and faster than ever before.


Al Letson:We’re gonna listen back to that story, and then dig into some of the lessons learned. Marisa starts us off in the hills above Sonoma County’s biggest city, Santa Rosa.


Marisa Lagos:Greg and Christina Wilson spent October 8th puttering around their house. It’s close to coffee shops and grocery stores, but from here, all you see are treetops and grassy hillsides.


Christina Wilso:On Sundays we hang out at home. You know, I’m always working, so I was probably doing work, and watching football, whatever.


Marisa Lagos:They’re in their early 50s. She’s a mortgage advisor, he’s a lawyer. They have a two-year-old dog, a shih tzu name Maximus, Max for short. They live in a tight-knit neighborhood up on a hill, where neighbors take time to chat. And after a year remodeling, the house finally felt fully theirs.


Christina Wilso:It feels like you’re just in this serene setting, so far away, this was like our dream.


Marisa Lagos:On that Sunday, Christina stands in her new, bright kitchen, looking out of the windows.


Christina Wilso:It was a lot windier than normal, and it was very warm, it was a warm day.


Marisa Lagos:Christina doesn’t think much of the wind. But what she doesn’t realize is that wind will soon bring fire to her doorstep. Inside the Cal Fire war room, they’re worried that something like that could happen. Sukey takes us there, where officials are already on standby.


Sukey Lewis:Firefighters are ready to mobilize, because the National Weather Service has issued a red flag warning, the highest alert for fire danger.


Marisa Lagos:Then, around 7:30 in the evening, 911 dispatchers get a concerning call.


Speaker 10:Fire and medical assistant.


Speaker 11:Hey, it’s county attention, a caller who’s reporting, it sounds like a power line that was arcing.


Speaker 10:Okay. Sir?


Speaker 12:Yes.


Speaker 10:Go ahead. What is the address of the emergency?


Marisa Lagos:The man tells the dispatcher that winds knocked a power line into a tree.


Speaker 12:But there were a lot of sparks, and this is a super high fire danger area. But the power lines were definitely [inaudible] sparks.


Speaker 10:Okay.


Speaker 12:What’s that?


Marisa Lagos:The dispatcher says someone is on the way, then makes this a top priority. She consults a computer screen to send the nearest engine out to respond. But the wind keeps picking up. About 20 minutes later, a woman dials 911 to report a transformer blowing, miles away.


Speaker 13:I’m sorry, tell me again what happened?


Speaker 14:Well it looked like it was a big fireworks that went off. But I’m pretty sure it’s a transformer.


Speaker 13:All right. We do have a firefighter on the way.


Marisa Lagos:What’s happening here is that high winds are knocking down power lines. These send out sparks, starting little fires. Then as lines go down, the electricity needs to go somewhere. So it gets redistributed. This overloads other lines, creating power surges. Transformers explode, taking down more of the electrical grid.


Speaker 13:Power lines are down, request PDD, one structure will be set in about 20 minutes.


Marisa Lagos:As Cal Fire gets these reports, they contact PG&E, the local utility company. And together they have the ability to do a few things. The utility can send out linemen to deal with individual incidents, or shut down power remotely, or a combination of both.


Speaker 15:But do the power lines, the northbound shoulder is going to be on fire until PG&E can secure power for us.


Marisa Lagos:On that night, Cal Fire and PG&E go by procedure, dealing with these incidents one by one, relying on linemen. They can’t keep.


Speaker 15:Information, we have multiple 911s ringing, and [inaudible 00:09:28].


Marisa Lagos:This is when you can first hear things getting out of control. It’s like a game of whack-a-mole. Cal Fire’s map is getting crowded. They’re running out of people to send, even as new fires break out.


Speaker 16:Like to the point where Cal Fire told us they’ve got no more resources, can’t send anybody.


Marisa Lagos:With no one to send to put out all these small fires, two blazes explode almost simultaneously, about 30 miles apart. In the forested hills of Sonoma County, gusts of wind are sweeping up burning tree branches and debris, and hurling these embers miles through the air. The blaze starts jumping from one mountain peak to another, leapfrogging valleys, racing through Napa vineyards and devouring homes across both counties.


Marisa Lagos:And it’s now rushing toward the city of Santa Rosa, home to 175,000 people. And for firefighters, it’s becoming clear these fires they’re facing are of a different order.


Jeff Hoag:Multiple structures involved …


Marisa Lagos:Cal Fire captain Jeff Hoag is in the middle of all of this. He’s like the voice of god to his troops. All night long, firefighters hear him on the radio, taking their calls and coordinating their response. From the Cal Fire war room, Hoag sends out a reminder, crackling over the radio.


Jeff Hoag:The priority of the unit is safety of the public, rescue, as well as safety of the rescuers. Do what you can.


Marisa Lagos:Safety for the public, safety for the rescuer, do what you can. What that means is putting out fires isn’t the priority any more. For firefighters, the singular focus is saving human lives, including their own. At 10:30, Cal Fire starts calling local law enforcement agencies in Napa and Sonoma to initiate evacuations. In this game of telephone, you can hear a lot go wrong.


Speaker 18:Hi it’s Michelle.


Speaker 19:Hey, I need a reverse 911 done.


Speaker 18:Okay.


Speaker 19:So Cal Fire needs it for the Calestoga area, mandatory evacuations.


Marisa Lagos:This Cal Fire employee is asking a Napa operator for a reverse 911. That’s an evacuation alert that can target specific neighborhoods, warning people fire if approaching. It calls home phones. But only half of Americans have landlines these days.


Speaker 18:Copy, will advise Cal Fire. I’m sorry, what was your question. Okay, seeing the reverse 911, are you [inaudible 00:12:01]?


Speaker 19:I need you guys to send out a reverse 911 so we can tell them to evacuate.


Speaker 18:Okay, I’m sorry I’m not familiar with what a reverse 911 is. I’m sorry.


Marisa Lagos:This is another one of those places where you can hear the system breaking down. The operator doesn’t even know what Cal Fire is talking about. But that’s actually because each county in California, there are 58, uses different technologies with different names to alert people. To Cal Fire it’s reverse 911, to Napa it’s called Nixel.


Speaker 18:I think it’s just Nixel. If it’s going out to the public and everyone.


Speaker 19:Yeah, it needs to go to all their phones, landline and everything. Mandatory evacuation.


Speaker 18:Oh landlines.


Speaker 19:Yeah.


Marisa Lagos:In this call, cal Fire is requesting an evacuation order. But it still takes an hour before law enforcement officials in Napa issue text alerts to the public. They won’t call people on their landlines until the next day.


Marisa Lagos:Over the course of the night, delay and confusion happen again and again.


Sukey Lewis:Right. And it didn’t just happen in Napa. Back at the home of Christina and Greg Wilson, the phone rings around 10 at night. But it’s not Sonoma County officials calling.


Christina Wilso:Yeah, I got a phone call around 10 o’clock from one of my friends who lives about three miles away. And she was like, “You know, I see fire in the distance and it looks like it’s coming really close.”


Sukey Lewis:They look out the window, and can see a faint glow of fire. Christina’s husband Greg chats with the neighbors and prepares to leave. Just in case, they fill two cars with valuables. A new painting, dog treats for Max. All the while that fire in the distance, fueled by high winds, is burning much closer. Soon it’s right at the end of their street.


Christina Wilso:Then all of a sudden it was just coming on so close that everybody at the same time decided to leave.


Sukey Lewis:They get in their cars and start driving. Their neighbors are all trying to get out too. And the narrow road is clogged with traffic, flames surround them.


Christina Wilso:I was just stunned … thought let’s turn around.


Sukey Lewis:The fire keeps growing as they head back home. And when they get there, their house is on fire too. So they go to the one place where the flames can’t reach.


Christina Wilso:So Greg said, “Let’s just get in the pool.” And it made sense, because it just did.


Sukey Lewis:In their swimming pool, Christina and Greg are safe from the flames. But not the smoke or the air, super-heated to in excess of 1000 degrees Fahrenheit.


Greg Wilson:There was such super-heated air, that trying to breath it was so hard.


Sukey Lewis:That air is so hot, it consumes the oxygen before they can catch a breath. It burns their lungs, and it’s why Greg’s voice sounds so hoarse. Greg holds Maximus, their dog. He squeezes Christina’s hand as they dive under the water.


Greg Wilson:Really just those first 20 minutes, this diving down, coming up. Sometimes not really getting any air at all, but just saying, okay I gotta go down again.


Sukey Lewis:They plunge into the freezing cold water again and again, just to get a break from the blaze. The solar panels bubble and burst. Greg watches as their dream home turns to ash. The fire is creating its own weather, whipping debris all over the place. Flying embers hit Maximus in the eye.


Greg Wilson:And right then it’s like, you have time to hug each other and say, “This could be it, honey.” And they I know we did it a couple more times, you know.


Christina Wilso:It meant the world because … Oh my God, because we were all together.


Greg Wilson:And that was probably why we didn’t leave, because we couldn’t bear the thought of separating, you know if we drove down and one of us made it and one of us didn’t, I’d rather us be together.


Christina Wilso:I didn’t even think of that. I just didn’t think we would have a chance to survive.


Sukey Lewis:It’s at this point that authorities send out the first evacuation orders. This call went out at 11:30 PM.


Speaker 21:Attention Sonoma County residents, there is a large fire off Northwest Spring Road. There are several homes engulfed in flames. We are recommending that you prepare to evacuate your homes and go to safe areas at this point.


Sukey Lewis:That call goes out as the Wilson’s are huddling together in the water. Their cellphones on the side of the pool have melted into a pile of metal and splintered glass.


Al Letson:Only about 1200 people, who live in the hills above Santa Rosa, received that initial evacuation call. As the fire moves out of the wildlands, racing towards densely populated neighborhoods, most people are asleep in their beds and have no idea what’s coming.


Al Letson:When we come back, Sukey and Marisa take us into the neighborhoods where people are waking up to a wall of flames. This is Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.


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Al Letson:So the best way to get all of our stories, without anything in between, is just an email in your inbox. Our investigations change laws, minds, and sure, we’d like to say it, the world. Be among the first to read them. To sign up, just text Newsletter to 63735. Again, text the word Newsletter to 63735. I’ll see you in your inbox.


Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Throughout the country, wildfires are getting more extreme. And in California, this year’s fires have proven deadlier and more destructive than ever. These blazes share many of the same characteristics as the firestorm that ripped through northern California’s wine country last October, which at the time were the deadliest in state history.


Al Letson:KQED reporters Lisa Pickoff-White, Marisa Lagos and Sukey Lewis are looking back at last year’s fires, and what we can learn from the crucial decisions that were made in the first hours of those disasters. We join Sukey in the hills above the city of Santa Rosa, where a sheriff’s deputy is stumbling through the dark, choking on smoke, trying to get residents to safety.


Speaker 23:Sheriff’s office!


Sukey Lewis:This is audio from a sheriff deputy’s body cam. In the dark, two officers pound on doors, yelling at people to get out.


Speaker 23:Screw your shoe, come on! She’s disabled.


Sukey Lewis:They come across a woman who can’t walk.


Speaker 23:Let me get her feet!


Sukey Lewis:They carry her out of her house to their squad car by her arms and legs.


Speaker 23:Watch your leg, watch your leg!


Sukey Lewis:As the deputy drives out, he can barely see out of his windshield. It’s just smoke and embers.


Speaker 23:Go, go, go, go! Drive! Go!


Sukey Lewis:Rescuers will not get to every door. On this night, at least eight people will end up dying along this road. At another point in the video, just around midnight, the officer gets on the radio to ask about a neighborhood to the west.


Speaker 23:They gotta keep pushing the evacuations as far west as we can.


Sukey Lewis:He’s telling dispatchers they need to expand evacuations, pushing towards a neighborhood in Santa Rosa called Fountain Grove.


Speaker 23:Gotta be ready to evacuate all the way to 101, in my mind.


Sukey Lewis:At 1:00 AM, this man calls to report a winery in Fountain Grove is on fire.


Speaker 24:Dude, the whole winery, I’m talking about, I’m watching it right now, it’s burning right towards us.


Speaker 23:Okay, I need to leave the area then.


Sukey Lewis:Despite many calls like this, it would be another hour, nearly 2:00 AM before authorities start calling people in Fountain Grove and telling them to evacuate. Then the fire rips across Highway 101, a six-lane freeway that runs through the middle of the city. Residents on the other side of that freeway, in Coffee Park, a dense neighborhood well within Santa Rosa city proper, wake up to flames in the middle of the night.


Speaker 25:The [inaudible] is on fire, [inaudible 00:22:10].


Speaker 26:Okay ma’am, ma’am, I need you to pause, just a moment.


Speaker 25:Okay.


Speaker 26:I know you’re scared, I’m sorry I have to be short with you, we just have over 50 fires going on right now.


Sukey Lewis:This fire has been headed for their homes for four hours. But as Marisa and I found out, few people here get alerts of any kind.


Marisa Lagos:Sonoma officials could’ve notified every single person with a cellphone in that area through the same kind of system that takes over your phone with those loud amber alerts. But that wasn’t their procedure. Instead, they chose to send another type of alert to specific areas that reached fewer people.


Marisa Lagos:They did this in two ways. Through text and emails, using a system that people have to sign up for ahead of time. The county doesn’t know how many people got those warnings, because it doesn’t track that.


Speaker 27:The following is a message from the Santa Rosa Emergency Operations Center.


Marisa Lagos:They also made calls to people’s landlines. But only a third of those got through on the first try. Cal Fire battalion chief Jonathan Cox says with fires moving 100 yards a minute, chewing through phone lines and downing cellphone towers, officials couldn’t keep up.


Jonathon Cox:It was one of those instances where the disaster was moving faster than literally people could communicate.


Marisa Lagos:Up in the hills above Santa Rosa, the massive flame front has passed, leaving Greg and Christina Wilson, the couple who hid in their swimming pool, wet and freezing, their lungs burnt.


Christina Wilso:You know, I thought we would die.


Marisa Lagos:Exhausted and no longer able to support herself, Christina lies on a narrow concrete ledge. The deck around her burned away hours ago.


Greg Wilson:You know you’re kind of in survival mode, and I’m not sure my brain is even thinking of anything else, it’s just watching that house burn, and we’re just hugging each other on the ground.


Marisa Lagos:Then Greg hears something.


Greg Wilson:There’s the wail of a siren. It’s this low, quiet. And I’m like, “Honey, I think this thing is getting closer.” And at that point I got up, and I’m talking like this, but I’m just waving, screaming, “Hey!”


Marisa Lagos:The Wilsons are saved by chance. One of their neighbors managed to call a cop she was dating, who got Cal Fire to save them. Rescuers drive the Wilsons to a hospital.


Greg Wilson:The last thing I remember, Christina was lying on a gurney, I was lying on a gurney with Max, and there was a nurse there saying, “Okay, I’m gonna take Maximus.” And then they said, “And we’re gonna knock you out.”


Marisa Lagos:Greg and Christina, covered in burns, are put into a medically-induced coma. Nurses have to move them to another facility, because even the hospital catches fire. Their dog Max is alive, but is nearly blind.


Greg Wilson:I have to say I’m very impressed with my wife. She didn’t panic at all. You know the only thing you’re worried about is her.


Christina Wilso:You know you just kind of do what you do to survive. And we wanted to live. So …


Marisa Lagos:At this point, firefighters still aren’t even thinking about putting out blazes, they’re just trying to save as many people as they can. But there are only so many firefighters, and that mutual aid system, where neighboring counties tap each other when they need help, Cal Fire’s Anna-Lee Berloo says it’s breaking.


Anna-Lee:Sonoma’s depleted, they have a major fire going. They call Napa. Napa has a major fire going, they don’t have any resources to send. They call Lake. Lake County is depleted, they have a major fire going. So they call their closest neighbor, Mendocino. Mendocino has a major fire going, they don’t have any resources to send.


Marisa Lagos:Berloo doesn’t have anyone left to draw from, and that map in her war room, there are so many fires, she’s all out of magnets. She’s using Post-it notes instead, and the nearest additional firefighters are hours away.


Anna-Lee:All these counties that are touching each other, because that’s where the weather event went through, are all impacted with their own disaster.


Marisa Lagos:That weather event means more counties are getting hit by hurricane-force gusts of up to 80 miles per hour, and people are continuing to call 911, reporting electrical problems, surging power lines, and explosions. And they’re not just sparking new fires, they’re preventing first responders from doing their job. Because they’re not supposed to touch or even drive over a power line until electrical workers can guarantee the line is dead.


Marisa Lagos:We asked Unit Chief Berloo why Cal Fire didn’t consider asking the utility to shut down the power grid.


Anna-Lee:That is not something that we have historically done.


Marisa Lagos:But Cal Fire can do this. They do it in Southern California. Cal Fire’s Jonathon Cox says it’s just not procedure in this part of the state.


Jonathon Cox:Our world that we operate in is very procedurally driven, policy and procedurally driven. We’re one cog here in the large California cog wheel.


Marisa Lagos:This decision may have proven critical, as the fire spread north to Mendocino County.


Speaker 6:Vegetation fire, power lines down.


Speaker 7:1822, I have two calls pending. One of them is power lines down across the road.


Marisa Lagos:Remember that Highway 101 running through Santa Rosa? If you follow it 70 miles north, the towns start getting further apart, the farmlands more spaced out. In the early morning hours, a woman in a small town called Redwood Valley finds herself surrounded by fire. She calls 911.


Speaker 30:Do I need to evacuate my house and kids?


Speaker 31:I don’t know, ma’am, if it’s that close …


Marisa Lagos:Throughout the night, this is a pattern. 911 operators can’t give people clear directions on which way to flee. They tell them to shelter in place, to wait for a knock on the door, to drive through flames. Nobody seems to know what to do.


Speaker 30:I’ve been trying to call 911 for the last 15 minutes and nobody’s answered.


Speaker 31:Ma’am, I understand, there’s a lot of fires all over the county, so the best thing I can do is take whatever action you feel is necessary and appropriate okay?


Speaker 30:Can you tell me, who do I call to find out how close and what do I need to do?


Speaker 31:No one. No one, ma’am. Literally, there are multiple fires in the country right now …


Marisa Lagos:Just down the road from this caller, Redwood Valley fire chief Brendan Turner is directing his crews, trying to get residents to safety. He’s pulled over at bottom of a gated dirt driveway, making calls for more fire engines. The smoke billows around him, making it hard to see. Then someone walks out of the darkness toward him.


Brendan Turner:He said he needed help, so I got him over to the back of my patrol, and at that point I was realizing that he had had significant burns to his hand as well as his face. And I asked him his name, and he kind of cocked his head to the side. Which, “Brendan, why are you asking me this?” And that’s when I realized that I knew whoever this person was. And when he told me his name, my heart just sank.


Marisa Lagos:His name is John Shepherd. He tells Turner that he got separated from his wife and two teenage kids. They’re still up there in the fire.


Brendan Turner:You know, I know his family very well. I’ve known his mom, I grew up with him. Know the whole family. And that was hard.


Marisa Lagos:In a town as small as Redwood Valley, everyone knows each other. For his firefighters, those aren’t just three victims up on the hill, they are their friends and neighbors.


Brendan Turner:This was another one of those areas where I was extremely concerned for the safety of the responders also, because they were going to make it up that hill one way or the other.


Marisa Lagos:Turner has to make an impossible decision.


Brendan Turner:And at one point I had to kind of pull them back a little bit and say, “We have to wait until this passes a little bit before we get up there. We’re not able to help other people if we become victims.”


Marisa Lagos:As soon as the flames pass, Turner sends his firefighters up the hill. Among them, 23-year-old Garrett Johnson, who also knows the Shepherd family. Garrett finds the mom and her 17-year-old daughter, Cressa.


Garrett Johnson:When we got up there they were both conscious, alert, speaking with us. So I did have high hopes for them.


Marisa Lagos:While they wait for an ambulance to arrive, Johnson and the other firefighters dress their burns and give them oxygen. It’s still too dark and smoky to get a helicopter onto the valley floor to airlift them out.


Garrett Johnson:The mother was slightly declining as we were taking her off the hill. From my assessment, I thought the daughter was the lesser of the two injuries. Turns out I was wrong.


Marisa Lagos:The Shepherd parents survived with severe injuries. But Cressa, and aspiring artist and a junior in high school, underwent multiple surgeries and ultimately died at a hospital. Her 14-year-old brother Kai, who loved wrestling and the San Francisco Giants, he didn’t make it off the hill.


Marisa Lagos:As the sun rose that morning over Redwood Valley, Chief Brendan Turner was high up on the west side of the valley.


Brendan Turner:So I had a vantage point of basically the entire area on the valley floor that had burned. And it was surreal. It was hard to imagine what I was seeing. Again, it’s a community that a lot of us have called home for a long time. And to witness that amount of devastation, and still not know how many people we had missing, it was … Yeah, it was just gut-wrenching to see that.


Al Letson:The fires claimed 44 lives, injured 100s of people, and burnt more than 9,000 buildings to the ground. They were the deadliest wildfires in state history. Until now. Just over a year later, Northern California’s Camp Fire has been even deadlier. Marisa joins me with more. Hey Marisa.


Marisa Lagos:Hey, Al.


Al Letson:So Marisa, first let’s go back to the fires you reported on in the show. Again, it’s been over a year. Do we know yet what sparked them?


Marisa Lagos:Well we don’t know what sparked the biggest and deadliest, the Tubbs Fire, which was the one which hit the city of Santa Rosa. But in about 16 other cases throughout the Northern part of the state, we do know that the electrical utility, Pacific Gas and Electric, or PG&E, is being blamed by state investigators. And in many of those cases, we also know that the state says that PG&E acted negligently, and that they did not upkeep their electrical equipment to the standards they’re expected to by law.


Al Letson:PG&E could’ve powered down portions of the electrical grid preemptively during extreme weather, but it wasn’t company policy to do that. Has it changed at all in the last year?


Marisa Lagos:Yeah, that’s right. In the spring PG&E did come out and say that they were changing their policy, that they now, in certain conditions where it’s very hot and dry and the winds are very strong. They may in some situations tell residents that they could lose their power. And we actually did see them do that once this fall, but they did not do it in Butte County where the Camp Fire broke out. And so there’s questions being raised about whether that was the right decision.


Marisa Lagos:PG&E did report a disturbance on one of its big transmission lines very close to where firefighters believe the Camp Fire started. That’s led to a lot of speculation about whether PG&E did cause this latest fire, and what it could mean for the utility’s future.


Al Letson:President Trump just visited the fire zones of both northern and Southern California. He pledged federal help. But Trump has also been critical of state leaders blaming these fires on poor forest management. What should we make of hat criticism?


Marisa Lagos:For about 100 years the state and federal officials really worked to aggressively suppress fires in wildlands. And what happens is that means a lot of dry fuel has built up over that time. But this is well beyond just a forest management problem in California. We’ve had really extreme drought conditions in California. The heat that we’re seeing year round, which many attribute to climate change. So to say that this is a just an issue of cleaning out more dead brush and trees is to really over-simplify a problem that has just exploded in its magnitude over the last couple years.


Al Letson:Marisa, thanks so much for talking to me today.


Marisa Lagos:Thanks for having me, Al.


Al Letson:Marisa Lagos is a reporter for KQED. She and her colleagues Lisa Pickoff-White and Sukey Lewis reported on last years fire for us.


Al Letson:We’re gonna keep investigating the effects of wildfires, including the smokey air that has blanketed much of California this year. If you had to get treatment for heart or breathing problems, or if you treated people for conditions related to smoke, get in touch with us. Just text the word fire to 63735. Again, text fire to 63735. You can text stop at any time, and standard data rates apply. Back in a minute, this is Reveal.


Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Wildfires used to come around once a year, wildfire season. But lately, they’re happening year round. They’re getting bigger, and burning hotter. But there’s another reason fires are getting deadlier and more destructive. It has to do with how and where we build. We wanna share a story with you that we aired earlier this year, investigating what is now only the second most destructive fire in California history, the Tubbs Fire. It’s the one that burned down the neighborhoods of Fountain Grove and Coffee Park last October. It killed 22 people and destroyed more than 5,000 buildings. Most of those buildings were in the city of Santa Rosa, but the fire started miles outside of town, and came through hills that months later are a mix of blackened oak and the first new shoots of green grass.


Al Letson:It’s weird, it’s like in a state of death and rebirth at the same time.


Al Letson:I drove out to a clearing between these hills, to meet someone who saw the fire coming. His name is John Faltz, he’s 70 years old, and since he was a kid, he’s worked out here at his family’s mountain home ranch, cabins and barns that were turned into a bed and breakfast and retreat center.


Al Letson:John, what are we looking at here?


John Faltz:This was the lodge.


Al Letson:It was a three-story concrete house, with a chimney made of petrified wood. Now it’s just a chimney and a pile of twisted rebar and broken cement.


John Faltz:We just did the inventory, and boy doing inventory really is a tearful thing. Because you in your mind walk into each room, okay what was in there? And it was very emotional when they came and tore it down,.


Al Letson:How long ago was that?


John Faltz:Maybe two weeks, a week. Recently.


Al Letson:So it’s still fresh.


John Faltz:Yeah.


Al Letson:But as hard as it was to lose the ranch, it wasn’t unexpected. Everyone in John’s family trains to fight wildfires. They even have their own fire truck. Because the ranch, well it’s burned before.


John Faltz:This is the third time.


Al Letson:The first time was in the ’30s, before John was born. But the second time was in 1964. This is a news reel from back then.


Speaker 35:The worst forest fires in the history of Northern California have laid waste a quarter of a million acres.


Al Letson:More than half a dozen buildings burned. But John, still in high school, was able to use water from a nearby swimming pool to help save the cabins his grandfather built.


Al Letson:The 1964 fire and last year’s Tubbs Fire both started just a few miles from John’s ranch. And both of them blew through the hills to Santa Rosa. In fact, if you draw an outline of the 1964 fire on a map, it’s kind of eerie.


John Faltz:Right, exactly the same pattern as the one this year. I mean it burned almost identical.


Al Letson:But with one key difference. Even though these two fires burned the same land, the fire in the 1960s didn’t kill anybody or burn nearly as many homes. And there’s one obvious reason.


Al Letson:When the fires came through in the ’60s, I’m sure that the community of Santa Rosa was not built up the way it is now.


John Faltz:No, there was almost nobody. In fact, Fountain Grove was not built. Coffee Park was a hayfield.


Al Letson:Coffee Park lost more than 1400 homes in last year’s fire. Fountain Grove lost more than 1700.


John Faltz:And they’ll be allowed to rebuild and they’re gonna do it again. But a fire will come again there.


Al Letson:Do you feel it’s crazy for them to rebuild there?


John Faltz:Yeah, I do. At least the way they had it.


Al Letson:The way they had it, Fountain Grove was a dense neighborhood of hilltop McMansions, with Santa Rosa at their feet, and rolling mountains in the distance. But now, it’s full of big yellow machines, clearing the last chunks of McMansion off of cement foundations.


Al Letson:I mean it looks like the type of ruins that you would see in Greece or something.


Al Letson:Those ruins tell a story. If you know wildfires, like Reveal data reporter Eric Sagara.


Eric Sagara:You see down there, there’s still an actual part of a building standing down there.


Al Letson:Yeah.


Eric Sagara:There’s not a huge amount of space there.


Al Letson:If you’re worried about wildfires, you wanna keep plenty of space between you and anything that will burn. That means bushes and trees, but also other houses.


Eric Sagara:So if you have a huge house on a small lot, you don’t have a whole lot of space to clear and defend yourself.


Al Letson:And if bushes and houses are wildfire rocket fuel, this steep hillside is like a wildfire launchpad. Because heat rises. But if the fire risk here is so obvious, how did it all get built in the first place? For that, Eric and I pulled in Reveal’s Patrick Michaels.


Patrick Michael:All right, so the development in Fountain Grove sort of begins in the early ’70s, when Hewlett-Packard wants to move up from Palo Alto and put a tech campus there.


Speaker 38:This is the Hewlett-Packard HP65, the first fully programmable, pocket-sized calculator.


Patrick Michael:Hewlett-Packard built the campus on part of it, and the rest of it was basically worker housing. And that’s what started this building spree out on the hillside. And one after the other, these master planned communities started popping up on the hills above Santa Rosa.


Eric Sagara:And now you can actually see this from the air.


Al Letson:That’s Eric Sagara again.


Eric Sagara:And we have an animation here to show you how that growth looks.


Al Letson:Okay, so what am I looking at here?


Eric Sagara:So up here …


Al Letson:Eric shows me a timelapse birds-eye view of Santa Rosa.


Eric Sagara:And if you look right where this dark spot is, that is Fountain Grove.


Al Letson:On those dark green hills, at the edge of the city, white dots and lines start appearing. They’re houses and streets. And in the late ’90s, they take over.


Al Letson:That’s a massive amount of growth in relatively a short period of time.


Eric Sagara:Right.


Al Letson:So Eric, all of these houses are going up in a fire-prone wilderness area. Is that unique to this part of California.


Eric Sagara:No, it actually isn’t. And it’s actually pretty common throughout the country. This fire-prone area that we’re talking about, the wildland-urban interface, this is where homes and vegetation collide and mix together. In Sonoma County, the population of these areas grew by about 20% over the course of two decades. That’s actually right at the national average.


Al Letson:And Patrick, what about the people who move into these type of houses. I mean, did they know about the fire danger?


Patrick Michael:Well not really. We met with a woman name Susan Goran who moved in in the ’90s.


Susan Goran:Welcome to the temporary-permanent home, while we rebuild.


Patrick Michael:Her own home had just burned down.


Susan Goran:Those photos were rescued.


Patrick Michael:Her husband had a job at Hewlett Packard, and she and her husband were both big outdoors people.


Susan Goran:The natural beauty of Sonoma County is what really pulled us here. And then our family was growing and we need a larger house. Sadly, that house and that entire neighborhood is gone.


Patrick Michael:That was Fountain Grove?


Susan Goran:That was in Fountain Grove.


Patrick Michael:And so living on this heavily treed hillside, that was really what they were there for.


Susan Goran:An interesting fact is that one of the oak trees had been incorporated in the deck, in other words the deck was built around the oak tree. And you could see the scars up the limbs of this very old oak tree. And it was from the Hanly Fire 50 years ago.


Patrick Michael:That was her first clue that there had been any fire there before.


Susan Goran:And I said, “Oh well that’s an interesting piece of history.” But it never dawned on me that it would be repeated. Was I aware of the fire risk then? Not a strongly as I am now, for sure.


Al Letson:So she’s strongly aware of the fire risk now, because her house burned down.


Patrick Michael:Well right. But also because now she’s a Sonoma County Supervisor. And so in that job, part of her job is to use what she knows about fire risk to help determine what people build where in Sonoma County.


Al Letson:And how is she doing that, what is Susan Goran doing about people who wanna build homes in these fire-prone areas?


Patrick Michael:Well, we sat down with her and we asked her. If you can see a circumstance where wildfire risk on some land is just so extreme that you as a supervisor would feel comfortable not allowing construction on there, period?


Susan Goran:It’s pretty hard for us, any decision-maker, to say to any property owner that sorry, we’re not going to rebuild large swaths of Sonoma County. I think that is not fair to the homeowners, and it’s not feasible for the policy makers.


Patrick Michael:What they’re dealing with, apart from the immediate disaster of the fire, is that everyone who was displaced in the fire, those are all taxpayers as well. And so the city is facing a multi-million dollar shortfall in its budget. So they wanna get people rebuilding, made whole and back into their homes in Santa Rosa as quickly as possible. They even set up an office to expedite the permitting process for people who wanted to rebuild their homes. We revisited there right when they were just putting it together, basically.


Patrick Michael:They’re drilling the keyboards onto the desks.


Speaker 40:It’ really exciting.


Patrick Michael:There was a woman I talked to, she saw the devastation and the way that she thought of to help was to join the permitting office, so that she could help people with the paperwork to get their homes built as fast as they could.


Speaker 40:The key to rebuilding is gonna be streamlining permitting. Everybody understood that early on. They want somebody to rebuild on that property. We need that.


Al Letson:So it sounds like the local government’s reaction to this devastating fire has actually been to accelerate building to get people back in their homes.


Patrick Michael:And that’s not a unique sentiment. I’ve actually covered multiple fires, and the recovery process afterwards, and that instinct to rebuild and rebuild quickly is actually fairly common. But it’s not just rebuilding, it’s developers who are coming in and seeing opportunity in these scorched lots. Researchers have found evidence to suggest that new home construction can actually out-pace rebuilding efforts after a wildfire.


Al Letson:Okay, so is anything different happening when it comes to this new development?


Patrick Michael:Well we didn’t have to wait too long to see that. Because almost immediately after the fire, there was a development called Round Barn Village. So before this building can get started, the City Council needs to decide to change the land use from commercial to residential. But it would put about 237 townhomes in hills sort of adjacent to Fountain Grove.


Patrick Michael:So we actually went to check out the site where they’re planning to build these homes, and it’s an open field with a parking lot in the middle of it.


Julie Combs:Well stand under the shade of a burnt tree.


Patrick Michael:When we got there, we met a City Council member named Julie Combs.


Julie Combs:What we’re looking at is trees that have black bark. They still have branches, but the branches are all brown from being singed and scorched.


Patrick Michael:It was a really sort of eerie sight. And she was saying that this was a place in particular that she didn’t feel comfortable letting people build, because she felt responsible for people.


Julie Combs:We’re not too far from the place where the fire jumped six lanes of highway and two access roads to burn down a K-Mart. So I have a lot of concerns about a residential project in this area. It always worries me to have people sleeping in a high fire hazard area.


Al Letson:So what happened when this new development came up in front of the City Council?


Patrick Michael:All right, so this was the moment that we’d sort of been looking forward to throughout the reporting of this. This was the first big test of new development after the fire. So we went up there for the City Council meeting that started at four. About 9:30 they got around to this question.


Speaker 42:15.2, public hearing Round Barn Village Project.


Patrick Michael:And we heard from the developer.


Speaker 43:All your exteriors, your doors, your windows …


Patrick Michael:They described all the fire-safe technology they were gonna be using. Scott Moon, the fire marshal from Santa Rosa, made the case that the new building standards in high fire-risk areas are so strong that …


Scott Moon:I think that will play into the resiliency of our community as we do move forward.


Patrick Michael:We can safely build homes now.


Eric Sagara:That seems to be the prevailing sentiment. Stuff like fire-resistant materials, double-pane windows, screens on your vents. But I’m not sure the building codes would’ve saved homes in this particular fire. About 94% of the homes that were built to the standards that that fire marshal was talking about, still burned. Our analysis found that there were 261 homes that had all these things in place. All but 16 of them were destroyed or damaged.


Patrick Michael:Despite that fact, the fire marshal’s emphasis on new fire codes really seemed to sway some of the City Council members at that meeting.


Speaker 45:I’m happy to, with our discussion tonight, with those commitments, allow this to move on to the next step.


Patrick Michael:And there was just one City Council member, Julie Combs, who stood her ground and said …


Julie Combs:We are setting a precedent to build more new housing in a fire hazard area, when we vote today. I cannot support this one.


Patrick Michael:There was this anti-climactic moment where the clerks flips on the voting, and the lights pop up, and it was six green ones and one red one. And that was it, they approved it and we’re on to the next order of business.


Speaker 42:I move a resolution of the Council of the City of Santa Rosa …


Al Letson:So after this City Council vote, and Julie Combs, she was the one against six, what was her reaction?


Julie Combs:Why are you still here?


Patrick Michael:We caught up to her after the meeting, right outside. And what she said she was thinking about was taking the big view.


Julie Combs:This is only the first new housing development, it’s not the last. We’re going to see more development, more housing proposed for the fire hazard area. And we just blinked. So the next group is gonna say, “Well you let them go. So why aren’t you letting us go?”


Patrick Michael:We just witnessed how it happens.


Julie Combs:You just witnessed the process of we’ve given up the ability to prevent any kind of increased density of housing in a fire hazard area. We just gave it up. And we’ve given it up until the next fire.


Al Letson:So Eric, you said earlier that homes are getting built in fire-prone wilderness areas all over the country. In Santa Rosa, they’re now putting even more houses there, right after a major fire. Is the rest of the country doing the same thing as Santa Rosa?


Eric Sagara:Yeah, generally speaking I would say so. And we’ve seen this in areas like Tennessee, Oklahoma, South Carolina. These are all places that have lost homes to fires over the past few years, and new houses are being built. They’re rebuilding in places that have burnt before. And it’s entirely possible that they’re gonna burn again. The other thing we know is that fires are actually gonna increase in severity and frequency throughout the country, not just in the Western states. So we can expect to see this story again and again and again.


Al Letson:That’s Reveal’s data reporter Eric Sagara, and Patrick Michaels. That story was produced by Stan Alcor. Rhett Myers edited today’s show. Thanks to KQED’s Sonia Hudson and Peter Akuni for additional reporting on these stories. Samantha Fields helped produce today’s show, and also thanks to Gayla Baron.


Al Letson:Our production manager is Mwende Inahosa. Our sound design team is the dynamic duo, Jay Breezy, Mr Jim Briggs and Fernando my man yo Aruda. They had helped from Kat Shuckman. Thanks to Dan Bergren and Sleeping Giant Records for additional music in this episode. Our theme music is by Camarado, Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. And Catherine T. McArthur Foundation. The Jonathon Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.


Al Letson:Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.


Speaker 46:From PRX.


Lisa is a multimedia producer for California Watch. Before that, she was a print, multimedia and radio reporter in the Bay Area and Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, National Journal, KALX, Bay Guardian and UPI. She recently graduated from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism with an emphasis in new media.

E-mail: lpickoffwhite@californiawatch.org

Marisa Lagos covers state politics for the San Francisco Chronicle, focusing on the Legislature, elections and criminal justice. She writes a weekly column, Capitol Notebook. She previously worked for the San Francisco Examiner and Los Angeles Times.

Patrick Michels is a former reporter for Reveal, covering immigration. His coverage focused on immigration courts and legal access, privatization in immigration enforcement, and the government's care for unaccompanied children. He contributed to Reveal's award-winning project on indigenous land rights disputes created by oil pipelines. Previously, he was a staff writer at the Texas Observer, where his work included an investigation into corruption at the Department of Homeland Security and how the state's broken guardianship system allowed elder abuse to go unchecked. Michels was a Livingston Award finalist for his investigation into the deadly armored car industry. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's degree in photojournalism from the University of Texas at Austin, where his work focused on government contractors grappling with trauma and injuries from their time in Iraq.

Eric Sagara is a senior data reporter for Reveal. He joined Reveal following a news applications fellowship at ProPublica, where he worked on projects about pharmaceutical payments to doctors, deadly force in police agencies and the trail of guns in the United States. Prior to that, he was a reporter on The Newark Star-Ledger's data team. Sagara is originally from Arizona, where he reported on business, education, crime, wildfires and government. He is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Stan Alcorn is a former senior reporter and producer for Reveal. His radio work at Reveal has won awards including a Peabody Award, several Online Journalism Awards, an NABJ Salute to Excellence Award, and a Best of the West Award, as well as making him a finalist for a Livingston Award for Young Journalists. He previously was a reporter for Marketplace, covering business and economic news – from debit card fees levied on the formerly incarcerated to the economic impact of Beyoncé's hair. He has helped launch new shows at Marketplace, Slate, and WNYC; contributed research to books by journalists at Time and CNBC; and reported for outlets including NPR, PRI's The World, 99% Invisible, WNYC, FiveThirtyEight, Fast Company, High Country News, Narratively, and Digg.

Brett Myers is an interim executive producer for Reveal. His work has received more than 20 national honors, including a George Foster Peabody Award, four nationalEdward R. Murrow Awards and multipleThird Coast/Richard H. Driehaus Competition awards. Before joining Reveal, he was a senior producer at Youth Radio, where he collaborated with teenage reporters to file stories for "Morning Edition," "All Things Considered" and "Marketplace." 

Prior to becoming an audio producer, Myers trained as a documentary photographer and was named one of the 25 best American photographers under the age of 25. He loves bikes, California and his family. Before that, he was an independent radio producer and worked with StoryCorps, Sound Portraits and The Kitchen Sisters. Myers is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Mwende Hinojosa is a former production manager for Reveal. Prior to joining Reveal, she was the training strategist and innovation manager for the Bay Area Video Coalition, a nonprofit media arts center in San Francisco. At BAVC, she provided resources and support to students training in video, motion graphics, web and graphic design and managed a community for creative freelancers called Gig Union. She has produced segments for public radio stations KUSP, KQED, KALW and KUOW; videos and short documentaries for nonprofits; interactive panel discussions; and immersive storytelling experiences for tech companies. .

Jim Briggs III is the senior sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. He supervises post-production and composes original music for the public radio show and podcast. He also leads Reveal's efforts in composition for data sonification and live performances.

Prior to joining Reveal in 2014, Briggs mixed and recorded for clients such as WNYC Studios, NPR, the CBC and American Public Media. Credits include “Marketplace,” “Selected Shorts,” “Death, Sex & Money,” “The Longest Shortest Time,” NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” “Radiolab,” “Freakonomics Radio” and “Soundcheck.” He also was the sound re-recording mixer and sound editor for several PBS television documentaries, including “American Experience: Walt Whitman,” the 2012 Tea Party documentary "Town Hall" and “The Supreme Court” miniseries. His music credits include albums by R.E.M., Paul Simon and Kelly Clarkson.

Briggs' work with Reveal has been recognized with an Emmy Award (2016) and two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards (2018, 2019). Previously, he was part of the team that won the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma for its work on WNYC’s hourlong documentary special “Living 9/11.” He has taught sound, radio and music production at The New School and Eugene Lang College and has a master's degree in media studies from The New School. Briggs is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Fernando Arruda is a sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. As a multi-instrumentalist, he contributes to the original music, editing and mixing of the weekly public radio show and podcast. He has held four O-1 visas for individuals with extraordinary abilities. His work has been recognized with Peabody, duPont-Columbia, Edward R. Murrow, Gerald Loeb, Third Coast and Association of Music Producers awards, as well as Emmy and Pulitzer nominations. Prior to joining Reveal, Arruda toured as an international DJ and taught music technology at Dubspot and ESRA International Film School. He worked at Antfood, a creative audio studio for media and TV ads, and co-founded a film-scoring boutique called the Manhattan Composers Collective. He worked with clients such as Marvel, MasterClass and Samsung and ad agencies such as Framestore, Trollbäck+Company, BUCK and Vice. Arruda releases experimental music under the alias FJAZZ and has performed with many jazz, classical and pop ensembles, such as SFJAZZ Monday Night Band, Art&Sax quartet, Krychek, Dark Inc. and the New York Arabic Orchestra. His credits in the podcast and radio world include NPR’s “51 Percent,” WNYC’s “Bad Feminist Happy Hour” and its live broadcast of Orson Welles’ “The Hitchhiker,” Wondery’s “Detective Trapp,” MSNBC’s “Why Is This Happening?” and NBC’s “Born to Rule,” to name a few. Arruda also has a wide catalog of composed music for theatrical, orchestral and chamber music formats, some of which has premiered worldwide. He holds a master’s degree in film scoring and composition from NYU Steinhardt. The original music he makes with Jim Briggs for Reveal can be found on Bandcamp.