The Hotshots of Helltown
April 21, 2019 6:07 PM   Subscribe

The November 2018 Camp Fire in northern California destroyed the town of Paradise and would have consumed the nearby, ironically named Helltown except for a few brave homeowners who went to heroic lenghts to protect a one mile stretch of road as the fire crept in from all sides. This is the story of the hotshots of Helltown.
posted by vrakatar (12 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
If you're going to be an idiot, be a lucky one.
posted by zamboni at 7:07 PM on April 21, 2019 [6 favorites]

and have someone who knows how to fight fire, and heavy equipment.
posted by suelac at 7:28 PM on April 21, 2019 [3 favorites]

I live in Grass Valley, CA which is more than a little like Paradise. I have a very clear plan on defending my home in the case of a fire: get the fuck out. There's two normal roads, two fire roads, and a couple of power lines I could walk out in in a real disaster. I'm glad these good folks at Helltown succeeded but boy could that have gone wrong in a hurry.

The terrible thing about the Camp Fire, and the Sonoma fires last year, is that a lot of people didn't even have time to get the fuck out.
posted by Nelson at 8:37 PM on April 21, 2019 [5 favorites]

I occasionally travel around pet sitting. Two years ago I was in LA when the Skirball fire was happening and happened to be in a house one block east of the mandatory evacuation area. I was sitting two dogs, two cats, and five chickens. The owner was on vacation and off the grid and had no idea what was happening. She'd gone with her boyfriend and they'd taken his car, leaving her SUV behind. I'm not much of a driver, have only a learner's permit and had that only a year at that, but I searched around and found the keys and loaded the thing up with pets and what I thought were some portable valuable possessions. Had it been my home I'd have known people and had made calls for places to go -- but I'm not from there and really just thought... where the hell am I going to go with these animals?

Soot was falling from the sky and you could see smoke and feel the heat. It was pretty terrifying. Then... the wind changed and it was over -- for me, anyway. People northwest of me started feeling what I was feeling, but for me and those east and south of me it seemed to be done. And it was.

Up until then I'd never experienced anything like a natural disaster. Worst prior had been during some freezing storms in Toronto which knocked out electricity for days, but I never before thought, "Okay, good chance I'm gonna cook in this car with frightened creatures."

I swore then and there I'd never go back to these potentially dangerous areas. However, word got out -- mostly from my client and client's neighbours -- that I was the person to call in a pinch. I was organized, thoughtful, and ready to go. Now half the calls I get for pet sitting are from Californians in high risk areas who want to holiday. Last year I ended up just south of the Woolsey fires in Malibu. I was much calmer, had fewer critters (just two elderly dogs), and thankfully again barely managed not to need to evacuate.

I spend a lot of time in hotel bars because they usually have decent bartenders and no televisions. In November, 2018, I met 9 people, one by one, night after night, who, but for their lives, lost everything to the Woolsey fire.

When I read about people like in this article, I think: they're nuts. Lucky and nuts. I'm both of those things, but never simultaneously. My brain doesn't really know what to do with the dual characteristics on display. There's a snap in my brain. Does not compute.

GTFO. It's only stuff! Run.
posted by dobbs at 6:31 AM on April 22, 2019 [11 favorites]

"Dharma LaRocca" is maybe a perfect California name.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:35 AM on April 22, 2019 [2 favorites]

Wow. That map. I guess you do what you have to do to save what you love. Even if it's where you became you.
posted by yoga at 7:08 AM on April 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

yeah, the writers outdid themselves with this, what between Dharma LaRocca as mentioned and this money quote which made my california-born heart twitch:

"They had no water; the only liquids they had on hand were two half-bottles of wine from Dharma's family vineyard and a few kombuchas."
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 7:51 AM on April 22, 2019 [2 favorites]

My in-laws live in Lake County,CA and have had to bug-out at least two times in the last five years because of these fires and I'm terrified for then and their house.
posted by octothorpe at 8:03 AM on April 22, 2019

I get why people want to build homes and live in beautiful places with tons of trees that basically turn into waiting fuel half the year. It's nice to have a house in the forest.

What boggles my mind is that collectively, as a state we just let them keep doing it. Making a home in a Helltown or a Paradise or anywhere else anywhere near CalFire's Tier 3 is a guarantee that it will burn down - a when, not if scenario.

As a Norcal native I'm sick and tired of hearing about people like this. Real estate ownership is already out of my financial grasp (in my home state! where I was born!), yet anyone who cares to can build in these places and then expect my tax dollars to bail them out when they need a new home built. Fuck that noise.
posted by allkindsoftime at 11:53 AM on April 22, 2019 [2 favorites]

and have someone who knows how to fight fire, and heavy equipment.

Amen. I sent this link to my husband, he’s a hotshot and in his seventh season fighting fire. I expect to hear a lot of “what a bunch of idiots” and “this is why fires are so expensive”, referring to the urban interface. If they hadn’t had those dozers, they would have died.

People build their houses out in the pretty forests and then do nothing for fire prevention, not even the bare minimum like clearing dead fuels around the home. There is a small town in central Washington my husband worked on two summers in a row that the locals jokingly say burns down every year, just to be rebuilt and then burn again.
posted by Snacks at 2:20 PM on April 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

It is good to see the Helltown story receiving national attention, but leading with an image of a burning home under ponderosa pines plays back into the media narrative centered on Paradise. Further down are glimpses of the actual canyon floor -- blue oak behind LaRocca with his shovel, gray pine behind Jankuska at the road sign. This resembles the tinderbox scrubland around Poe Dam and Pulga more than the picture-postcard forest which begins at the end of Centerville Road.

In 2017, Butte County created a shaded fuel break along Centerville and Helltown Roads. On April 20, there was a meeting in the yellow schoolhouse with county and Cal Fire officials and Helltown and Centerville residents to discuss the scope of the project. The locals insisted that the county must not spray biocides into their watershed and must not cut as much as the last time when the brush came back stronger. The Helltowners said they were already taking care of their own road, and whatever the county wanted done, they'd just do it themselves.

So it did not surprise me to hear from a neighbor last November that locals had saved Helltown before Cal Fire even showed up. Nor that a mile and a half of freshly-brushed Centerville Road had become the containment line.

Nor is it a surprise to see Camp Fire victims blamed for what occurred miles upwind. Masonry structures surrounded by three acres of asphalt burned from the inside out. Removing every blade of vegetation on Paradise Ridge would not have stopped windblown embers from igniting decks, sheds, vehicles, attic spaces, and other manmade fuels that spread the fire across town.

California has seen so many wildland fires that it indeed no longer allows shake roofs, exposed soffits, natural wooden siding, or many other characteristic elements of mountain architecture. Paradise cannot rebuild what was lost; new construction must withstand fire.

Yet the state code does not allow mud brick. Instead it allows millions of dwelling units within seismic design categories D2 and E by requiring new construction to be engineered for a 2500-year earthquake. So new homes are unaffordable to most Californians.

Paradise is hemmed in by canyons to the northwest and east and by a series of ravines to the south. With no room to expand, its population remained flat for thirty years. Most of its housing stock was older, which made it affordable to a broad spectrum of people -- yet also liable to burn. Victims are now finding out insurance based on market value will not cover the cost of new construction.

Meanwhile survivors with standing homes are finding out that it could take two to three years to restore potable water after more than 100 miles of plastic pipe were contaminated with benzene from burning HDPE when thousands of uncapped connections caused the system to depressurize. Paradise Irrigation District is asking for approximately 50 cents of each Californian's tax money to remain solvent through this rebuild.

If Paradise vanishes like Powellton before it, economically dependent Upper Ridge communities will also perish. Which gets back to the Hotshots risking their lives.

What was saved in the canyon was not just stuff but the intangible fabric of a community. The yellow schoolhouse survives. The Colman Museum still stands beside it. The GQ article emphasizes the interconnections between this group of families. If one of them lost their home, the others would pull together, as is happening for thousands of survivors around Butte County. But if all of them lose their homes, their landmarks, the records of their history, they could become Bikinians or Chagossians, unmoored from their anchorage.

Instead this 150-year-old community survives, and their way of life can continue. They did not bring this disaster upon themselves any more than the people of Brumadinho deserved to be buried alive for occupying the same region as a criminally negligent corporation. If California at least retains rule of law, the culpable felon on probation will be held liable under HSC 13007-09, and the public will be repaid for supporting survivors through this arduous time.
posted by backwoods at 6:41 AM on April 23, 2019 [5 favorites]

Frankly, Paradise probably *shouldn't* survive, at least in the previous form. And the state is certainly correct to not allow them to rebuild as was, nor would it be a good idea to allow people to be buried in crumbling mud brick by the next big earthquake just because it's safer against fire.
posted by tavella at 10:39 AM on April 23, 2019

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