Driving into Paradise, Calif. David Mikulak of Natural Beauty Tree Works in Payson, marveled at how much the forested California retirement community reminded him of Payson.
“It felt a lot like Payson — ponderosa pines and big canyons,” he said. “The town even had a road — it’s called Skyway, going up the hill. It looks exactly like driving up the Beeline.”
Just three days later, he stood on the main street of Paradise amid the ashes left by the Camp Fire.
“All the businesses were gone ... wiped out — it felt like Payson was wiped out,” he said.
A flame of terror licked up his spine as he saw Payson’s possible future in the destruction of Paradise.
Nested in a forest, neither community had prepared for a wildfire.
Homes had brush-choked yards.
The many manufactured homes were tinderboxes.
Neither community had a wildland-urban interface (WUI) building code.
And the local electric company, Pacific Gas and Electric, had just started to clear the trees away from lines.
Standing, aghast in the ruins, he resolved to return to Payson on a Paul Revere-like mission — The wildfire is coming, the wildfire is coming — Payson has to prepare.
“If I could sum everything up, I would like to take one picture of every house in Paradise and show them to Payson residents. Let the reality sink in ... just look at that picture of everything you own — there is nothing. Even the plates were melted. You can’t find anything to keep of yours,” he said.
“I saw Payson in that town. So many similarities — the reluctance to do anything ... the thickness of some of the brush in the yards — there is just so much growth ... if I were a millionaire, I would schedule everybody’s property and we would Firewise this town one property at a time.”
Mikulak added, “When they were about to make a town ordinance in Payson, they voted it down,” he said. “There was a lot of resistance from people. They said, ‘I don’t want anybody telling me what I can and cannot do with my property.’”
The U.S. Forest Service, recognizing the increasing threat of wildfires, conducted research through Jack Cohen in 1995. This research proved Firewising yards and homes works.
To see firsthand how a crown fire affects homes, Cohen built structures in a forested setting, and then set a crown fire.
Homes, without brush and ladder fuels for at least 20 yards around the house, survived the crown fire.
These homes also had non-flammable roofs and double paned windows. Cohen found well-painted wooden walls could withstand a flame front only 130 feet away from the home, so long as other Firewise principles (brush removal) had been implemented.
The most sobering finding in Cohen’s research: even if government agencies manage the forest, the ultimate responsibility for a fire-safe home lies with the homeowner.
“A wildland fire does not spread to homes unless the homes meet the fuel and heat requirement sufficient for ignition and continued combustion,” wrote Cohen in 1999. “The flammables adjacent to a home can be managed with the home’s materials and design chosen to minimize potential firebrand (ember) ignitions. This can occur regardless of how intensely or fast spreading other fires are burning.”
Seeing the devastation
It was a twist of fate that Mikulak found himself at the epicenter of the most devastating fire in California history.
Pacific Gas and Electric Company hired Mikulak, an International Society of Arboriculture board-certified arborist, a few weeks before the Camp Fire to walk parts of the 7,000 miles of lines making sure trees didn’t threaten service or create a fire.
Part of his job brought him to Paradise.
He immediately noticed the failure to clear yards of brush.
“You don’t get to look down on Paradise, you’re among the tall canopy of forest,” he said.
Mikulak saw the result after the Camp Fire consumed 14,000 homes and killed at least 85 people in Paradise.
“(Arborists) were the first ones to go in there,” he said. “There was smoke everywhere. We had to wear respirators. You’re breathing in all these toxins. Businesses that had lined the main street were gone or had walls missing. I saw the bank with half the wall gone. I could see the safe ... I looked at the liquor store and you could see on part of the wall it was blue or green or red from the plastic smear left from melting bottles.”
Mikulak, along with his fellow arborists had to help PG&E restore power. He said the fire had burned out trees threatening the lines and poles. Until the power company removed those trees, the town remained dark.
Mikulak and his fellow arborists would mark trees as P1 or P2 depending on how damaged the trees were.
“Some trees burned three-quarters out. You could almost push them over — 150-foot-tall trees,” he said. “P1 meant an imminent hazard. We would call our lead and wait until the tree was out.”
P2 meant the tree would not live, but they could stay up until crews had time to remove them.
Mikulak went to one cul-de-sac where only the chimney remained.
Friends of his who had moved from Santa Cruz (where Mikulak went to university) to Paradise for the similar beauty without the price tag, asked him to look up addresses.
“Every day I made it my mission to look up two or three addresses on Google and visit,” he said. “I would take a picture of the actual plot. Every one of them was gone.”
Helping Payson wake up to the danger
Mikulak said he couldn’t wait to get home to Payson to spread the word about preparing for the inevitable wildfire.
“My main concern is to somehow take the trauma of that situation and deliver that to the people here. It’s got to come home,” he said. “It has to strike in the hearts of these people ... we really need to go full bore. Paradise will never be like it was. With the amount of houses gone, people will say, ‘I’m not going to live there again.’”
He said he has spoken to many Payson residents who have expressed concern about losing the forested feel of their homes if they Firewise.
Mikulak said if done properly, a property would look cleaner and natural with the floor under trees clear of brush. A well-trained landscaper will winnow down stands of scrub oak and manzanita — both highly flammable — to only leave the strongest bushes.
Mikulak said in addition to removing brush close to the house, homeowners should trim brush under trees that could set the lower branches on fire. “It looks like a national forest, beautifully manicured.”
Mikulak said fire can race through thick brush. The Camp Fire “went the length of one football field a second,” said Mikulak.
He said the fire whipped through Paradise so quickly many burned up in their bathtubs trying to save themselves from the flames. Others burned in their beds, not even aware of the fire.
“We really need to get something going, especially for seniors. Those were the people who didn’t make it out. They didn’t have enough time to put their clothes on,” he said.
One of the most astonishing things he saw — anthropologists sifting through the ashes to find any remnant of a bone.
“They only found fragments and chips of bones,” said Mikulak.
Both Mikulak and USFS researcher Cohen agree — homeowners must recognize their responsibility as the best line of defense in a wildfire.
“They never realize there is a price tag wanting to move into areas where fire is a natural part of the wildland interface ... when human beings want to go inhabit those areas, the first thing to do when moving in is to Firewise,” said Mikulak.
He said “There were houses that were spared. There were just single trees pruned up nicely and the grass was intact. The grass was green after the fire, yet all these houses around it burned down.”
Mikulak said if he doesn’t do something with the traumatic images he carries around in his head, he will burn up.
“Everything that happens in our life, we can choose. I could fall into depression and become alcoholic or I can make something beautiful and be on fire so it changes the whole scope of this town,” he said.
Because of his work and training, he already has PowerPoint presentations available.
He had gone to all of the local media to speak.
Now, he hopes homeowner associations, government agencies and other organizations will invite him to speak.
His message? Stewardship.
Already, he presents this message to Payson Elementary School every year, with the help of sapling donations from Plant Fair Nursery.
“Every year, I read ‘The Lorax’ (by Dr. Seuss) to the students at Payson Elementary School. That story is the reason I became an arborist,” he said. “In the end, he flicks that seed and says, ‘Plant it, and treat it with care and maybe the Lorax and all his friends will return.’ Then we give out a sapling. The whole overarching message is that element of stewardship. We’re all here because it’s so beautiful. Being good stewards is to take care of the area by limiting the amount of fuels on our property. We have to remember that the responsibility of humans inhabiting the forest is to Firewise. Over everything ... there is an element of personal responsibility.”
He understood that before he stood in the ashes of Paradise.
He understood that when he drove through the towering, tightly packed ponderosa pines on the single road into Paradise, the single road out.
He understood that when he first noticed the brushy yards, the thickets of small trees, the dried out eaves and the overhanging porches of Paradise.
But now, it haunts him.
We’re just like Paradise.