Alaska was ready.
Paradise was not.
And neither are we.
Last week, a magnitude 7.0 quake rattled Anchorage, which is built in large measure on fill that is vulnerable to extreme damage when the shaking of the earth causes liquefaction.
Back in 1964, a 9.2 earthquake devastated Anchorage and killed more than 100 people.
This time, the smaller quake shook people up, but killed no one and did not cause major structural damage. That’s because Anchorage heeded the warning of the 1964 quake. The town adopted tough earthquake building standards, developed an emergency plan to evacuate in case of a tsunami and stopped building on vulnerable fill.
The small retirement community of Paradise, Calif. also had a warning. A few years ago, a wildfire approached the town. Officials issued an evacuation warning – only to discover that the single, narrow road out of town immediately became jammed with fleeing residents. So when the Camp Fire approached in November, officials hesitated. They ultimately issued a phased evacuation order. But it was too late.
The worst fire in state history killed at least 77 people, with hundreds still missing. It burned 10,360 homes on 150,000 acres – including almost every home in Paradise. People were caught fleeing in their cars by the racing, merciless flames.
The town hadn’t created adequate evacuation routes.
The town hadn’t required Firewise clearing in and around the community.
The town hadn’t adopted a Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) building code. These measures might have made it possible for people to shelter in place and perhaps survive the inferno.
We can shake our heads and ponder the foolishness of human beings.
Except, we’d then have to explain why we’re so foolish here in Rim Country.
We’re just like Paradise.
We haven’t learned our lesson, despite the Wallow Fire and the Rodeo-Chediski and the Dude and the Tinder and the Schultz and the Yarnell Hill fires.
We’re just trusting to luck.
Neither Payson nor Gila County have comprehensive WUI codes or a Firewise program. In fact, the county just overhauled its planning rules to make it easier to build a subdivision with just one way in or out.
But Payson has new council members taking office this month.
During the campaign, the argument seemed to center on how actively the town should foster economic development – in the form of the proposal to overhaul Rumsey Park in a way that would accommodate a private prep school.
Well, that issue’s settled.
No one talked much about the real problem – the lack of town encouragement of a Firewise approach to brush clearing and the adoption of a tough WUI code, modeled on those already in place in Flagstaff and Prescott.
So here’s our deepest hope.
We hope the new council will make protecting this town from wildfire its top priority. Newly elected council members demonstrated they don’t support “growth at any cost.” Perhaps this will translate into a willingness to buck the developers by requiring WUI standards – even if it adds to the initial cost of a home.
None of the other fond plans councils have developed over the years will matter when the embers rain down on us, as it rushed down on Paradise. It won’t matter if the event center’s covered, new businesses have been lured or Main Street’s finally hopping. Ask the people in Paradise what matters and what their priorities should have been.
We have built our own paradise here.
Let’s not make it a fool’s paradise.