After a wildfire, how does a town rebuild?

A damaged building after the Camp Fire

Three months after the most destructive fire in California’s history, while the residents of Paradise were sifting through the rubble of their houses, moving out of shelters and into less temporary but not permanent housing, considering the future of their home—while they were still grieving the 86 people killed—Catrin Edgeley took her notebook and recorder to the destroyed town. She wanted to understand the ecology of the human response to the Camp Fire. For how often this happens, there are still so many unknowns.

Edgeley works at the intersection of forest management and sociology, studying how human communities adapt to wildfire and how they prepare and recover. Despite the significant human toll of wildfires, particularly in recent years, as fire seasons in the West have gotten longer, more severe and closer to development, most research has focused on the ecological effects and response.

“The human side is really challenging because it’s always evolving,” she said. “Humans move, fires come through in different ways, dynamics change—the same community could be completely different after a few years. There are always new things to be looking at, which makes it a lot more challenging than basic ecology. We often have a good idea of how vegetation is going to return, but we don’t necessarily know how people are going to respond.”

Destruction from Camp Fire in ParadiseThis research, “Exploring the social legacy of frequent wildfires: Organizational responses for community recovery following the 2018 Camp Fire,” published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, examines not just how the people of Paradise and the surrounding communities responded but also how lessons learned from one fire could be applied to future fires. For all the similarities of wildfires in American West, there is a surprising amount of discontinuity in the responses. A community today could respond to fire differently than it did five years ago. The same fire could hit communities differently. Or, as is increasingly common, fire responses are layered—organizations are still responding to one fire when another fire requires a response, and two months later, while in different response phases for the first two fires, a third occurs. There is not a manual that tells a community the correct way to respond because each fire and each community are distinct enough to require a more specific approach.

How the research started

Three months after a fire is early for a sociological study. Edgeley collected the data then because the initial emergency response was winding down and the long-term recovery was ramping up. FEMA and the American Red Cross were leaving, shelters were closing, people were returning and planners were asking how—and whether—to rebuild.

“I could see back and I could look forward in terms of timing and where they were,” she said.

In Paradise, a town of about 30,000 people, she interviewed locals involved in the response—city and school district leaders, county government, nonprofit leaders, the Rotary Club and so on. She asked what they were struggling with, from where they got information and resources and what roles state and national organizations played in the recovery. What she found were people who were attempting to navigate the recovery with little to no experience and no how-to manual. Many hoped, for instance, that FEMA would take a leading role in recovery. That was somewhat true early on; FEMA and the Red Cross have the resources to set up shelters, provide food and water and provide emergent care. But they are not set up to continue leading the response.

That put pressure on local groups to lead the response. They had to figure out how to get information and resources and what processes had to be put into place to initiate long-term recovery. Edgeley found that one of the best sources of help was when interviewees could connect to people with the same jobs in other fire-affected communities, of which there were many.

“The problem with those two approaches is no two communities are the same and no two fires are the same, so the lessons are useful but they’re not 100 percent transferable,” she said.

Destruction from Camp Fire in ParadiseLessons learned—and the more complicated question of how to apply them

In fact, the scale of destruction from the Camp Fire was more in line with the effects of Hurricane Katrina. It was a “melting pot of all the challenges we might face in recovery,” Edgeley said—a rural, low-income community with a large elderly population who had difficulty evacuating and without a lot of resources, financial or otherwise, to facilitate rapid recovery. And it raised questions about equity in recovery, how certain populations bear the brunt of such fires and how even fire can run along demographic lines.

“There’s a recognition that recovery isn’t equal—it doesn’t happen the same way in every household or community or across the same fire,” Edgeley said. “What people define as recovery, the way they experience it, the resources they get—there’s hasn’t been as much conversation about that for wildfire recovery yet.”

She found looking to other disaster responses, including hurricanes, tornadoes and flooding, offered lessons to wildfire responses, since more research exists on the social effects of those disasters. From the academic side, Edgeley believes a variety of case studies of community experiences after fires can help as well; even if no fire and no response are exactly the same, having such tools will provide a mix-and-match set of solutions that will guide communities and organizations in how to respond and help them know what to expect, who to ask and for what they need to ask. Increasingly, that work needs to include ways to respond to multiple fire disasters in various stages of recovery at the same time.

“The biggest challenge was figuring out what lessons were learned after these fires. Those lessons usually become apparent a year or two in, but the next disaster is already happening,” she said. “Back-to-back fires have really created these condensed periods of time where everything’s going on and those involved in recovery only come up for air when they have the time, so those reflections might not be available yet by the time the next community is facing a wildfire.”

Edgeley’s research includes recommendations:

  • Burned-out cars after Camp Fire in ParadiseBuild connections before a fire. Leaders were most likely to reach out to people they already knew, rather than cold-calling a leader in another fire-affected city. She advised that people have a list of who they would reach out to and make that connection today.
  • Find the community “navigators.” These people are often community leaders or champions who can work with national organizations to make sure the large-scale response is in keeping with community values. For example, emergency shelters that don’t allow pets won’t be of much use to a community where most people have pets and won’t shelter without them.
  • Talk to people about what matters. It’s not always what you think. Paradise had a “Welcome to Paradise” sign that was destroyed in the fire. Residents wanted the sign rebuilt because it was central to the community’s identity. Involving people in planning for such efforts also gave them a sense of ownership over the fire response: “It’s a process of healing for them as well. If you’re excluded from the recovery of your own town, it might not feel like yours.”
  • Understand cultural sensitivities during recovery and policymaking. Ecologically, fire is not always bad. It can provide significant value to a landscape; Native Americans have known this for centuries. When people’s lives, homes and livelihoods are at risk, though, the conversation changes. Researchers and managers need to support communities in ways that are sensitive to their identities and their needs.

What does this mean for Arizona?

In recent years, California has had the lion’s share of severe fires. However, they’re coming for the rest of the West. In northern Arizona, the 2021 Rafael Fire and 2019 Museum Fire threatened Flagstaff and surrounding communities, and the 2010 Schultz Fire did significant damage in the San Francisco Peaks. The 2020 Bighorn Fire in Tucson burned more than 100,000 acres and got dangerously close to the city. We may not be far behind California, Edgeley said.

It’s the same with the rest of the region, as December’s Marshall Fire in Boulder County demonstrated. The West should expect to see more of the layering of disasters, with resources stretched thin both during and immediately after fires and in the longer-term recovery process. Edgeley’s hope is that Arizona officials are looking at those fires, and the responses to fires in neighboring states and extracting lessons that can be adapted and applied in later emergencies.

“I think we have a lot of recovery knowledge in Arizona that isn’t talked about as much as it could be,” she said. “With all these fires, there have been really rich lessons learned, and we’ve done a good job with a couple of them, especially in Flagstaff— we have a lot more resources than some rural places so we’re able to document lessons learned more readily and figure out how we can level the playing field.”

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Heidi Toth | NAU Communications
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NAU Communications