Podcast: Resilience Roundtable

After the Camp Fire, Part II


In a two-part episode, Bill Siembieda, AICP, PhD, talks with Butte County, California, planning staff about the aftermath of the 2018 Camp Fire — one of the deadliest and costliest wildfires in the state's history, with 85 casualties and more than 50,000 people evacuated from their homes.

Part II of these conversations features Tim Snellings, director of development services for Butte County. Tim details the logistics of the cleanup process, and the two planners discuss how the town of Paradise, which was hardest hit by the disaster, might replan their community. Tim outlines some of the ways county staff might get creative with incentives and programs as they make updates to their general plan. He also underscores the challenges facing communities in the area and how urgent the need is for every jurisdiction facing these realities to update their plan now.

"[It's] essential that you be prepared for the disaster that's coming, that you don't shortcut on your general plan ... You're thinking that, Oh, we'll get to it someday. You need to get to it now. You need to find funding now to update your safety elements and do your hazard mitigation planning now."

— Tim Snellings, Director of Development Services, Butte County (California)

Bill Siembieda, AICP, PhD, is professor of city and regional planning at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

Listen to Part I here.


Episode Transcript

Jim Schwab, FAICP: Welcome to the American Planning Association podcast. This episode continues our series that looks at how different communities prepared for and responded to natural hazards, such as floods, wildfires, hurricanes, and more. How have planners in these communities promoted resilience in their hazard mitigation and disaster recovery planning? We’ll find out, on this episode of Resilience Roundtable, brought to you in conjunction with the American Planning Association’s Hazard Mitigation and Disaster Recovery Planning Division. I’m your host, Jim Schwab, FAICP. I’m chair-elect of APA’s Hazard Mitigation and Disaster Recovery Planning Division.

In this episode, we bring you a conversation hosted by Bill Siembieda, professor of city and regional planning at California Polytechnic State University. Bill interviews Tim Snellings, director of development services for Butte County, California. They discuss Tim's experience dealing with the aftermath of the 2018 Camp Fire. One major factor that Tim highlights is the damage to roads and infrastructure, including the results of massive amounts of debris removal. We'll also learn how this event is influencing updates to the county's hazard mitigation plan and general plan safety element. Now, let's listen to Bill and Tim.

Bill Siembieda, AICP: Hello, I'm Bill Siembieda, professor of city and regional planning at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, here speaking this morning, or today, with Tim Snellings, who's the planning director of the County of Butte, California. So, Tim, can you tell us a little bit about what you do and the size of your county and what are the issues that you see facing the county as a result of the Camp Fire?

Tim Snellings: Sure. As the development services director for Butte County, [I] oversee a staff of about 35 people. We have building, planning, and code enforcement as part of our department. Butte County is 1,670 square miles in size. That's about a million acres, to give you a sense of the size of the county. And our focus is on basically planning, short-term planning, current planning projects, as well as advance planning for long-term, long-range planning through general plans, zoning ordinance, specific plans, and overlays. We do a variety of overlay projects in the county for planning purposes, which either relaxed standards or tightened standards, depending on which type of overlay we write. We’re a very active group, a staff of six planners and a very active code-enforcement program for enforcing the codes and the rules of our ordinances. So we're active on both of those levels.

Bill: So can you speak to how the county is coordinating the actions of the key actors who are in the rebuilding — who will be in the rebuilding process — and what are the steps needed prior to those actors getting into the rebuilding process, including addressing debris and different types of debris, not any one kind of debris, different kinds?

Tim: Right. So the Camp Fire was a 153,000 acres in size. That's a very massive area that was impacted. The town of Paradise, as was discussed, was obliterated. The county area around — we lost about 3,000 homes. The town lost about 10,500 homes, 500 commercial structures. So there's a significant amount of damage and debris, and that debris is going to take about a year and a half to clean up. The hospice waste has been removed in the first few months. Now we're into the phase two of the debris removal project. We've got a million tons of concrete to remove from the mountain and steel that's being recycled as much as possible, hopefully be reused in future road projects. That's part of the vision to keep it local, where possible, to reuse it in the rebuilding projects. The town of Paradise lost 100 miles of public roads and 100 miles of private roads. So they've got a lot of paving work. The roads will get pretty much — what hasn't been damaged or destroyed yet will get damaged and destroyed through the debris removal and cleanup project, with all of those 200 crews working at the same time. We've actually set up base camps, two base camps for about 3,000 temporary workers to come in for about a year and a half to do this work. So there's a lot of action, activity happening on the ridge, in Paradise and in the surrounding county, areas of Concow, Magalia, Paradise Pines. So lots going on in Butte County.

Bill: I think what you just said highlights the point, is that: The damage assessment in a large disaster continues over time, right? You have the houses, the infrastructure. Now all the roads are going to get gone because of all the debris removal. So in that sense, with that much damage but all the roads getting — doesn't it also give you an opportunity then to rethink where the road should be and how big they should be? So how do you go into that space where the opportunities open up and try to use that space in a positive planning way?

Tim: Right. Shortly after the fire — the fire went on for about three weeks. And shortly after that, the trauma — I mean, the shock, the trauma, the horror of the event is so significant. The town of Paradise is only a staff of 67 people. About 60 of them lost their homes, all of the town council lost their homes. So there's a real post-traumatic stress syndrome scenario in play for all the people that we're now asked to work with, to have these conversations about rebuilding or replanning. And we put that question to the town manager in December. The fire was November 8, [2018,] was the start date. And in December [2018], we started having conversations with the town manager about — and encouraging her to replan, not just rebuilt. To their credit, there's resources that were provided through Butte Strong and through the Sierra Nevada Brewery Resilience Beer campaign, which generated about 15 million dollars of funding that came in. A lot of donations came in. And that money is being used to help Paradise replan, because the road network — they have a very good conversation they're holding right now about, "We shouldn't just rebuild. We should make our community more fire resilient." In that process, that creates a commercial core, mixed-use ideas and options, bringing in sewer options for discussion. They've got a water-system problem that's fairly contaminated that they're looking to replace, so as much consolidation as they can do, which is very different than our strategy in the county. We're not going to be adding more units, putting higher density up there, because we don't want more units up there because of the lack of secondary access. [That] has been our issue with the Upper Ridge. And so we've been doing as much as we can to support Paradise’s efforts to replan. And we're actually bringing them to a meeting soon with a variety of state agencies to talk about updating our general plans, coordinating with them and encouraging them with their efforts to update their general plan out of this planning process they're in right now.

Bill: That's a great answer. In this discussion that you're going to have with — the multiple-agency discussion and Paradise, FEMA is going to be a player in this, because FEMA, in their public-assistance section, is going to say, “Well, we can pay for the repaving all the roads that were there, but just the way they were and where they were.” Because FEMA's position is, it's a replacement, and that's part of the law. But this is an opening for a new discussion with FEMA, that if we move the roads here and if we improve and if we put in a new sewer, then we can do this, and that all should be under the public-assistance budget part of that. So have you thought about how that conversation will unfold? Because the FEMA PA people are the ones are who are going to have to make the variance, or the decisions, to make adjustments in that.

Tim: Right. I will say that I think both FEMA and Cal OES have been very responsive and some — and frankly creative for inventing new ways. Because they acknowledge this is unprecedented, what we're dealing with, with this type of devastation. And they're open to inventing new types of programs and bringing new types of resources. We're often in a position where we don't know what we don't know. And so we tell them the problem and we work — you have to work through Cal OES. You have to work through the state to get to FEMA. And so even though FEMA is at the table with us, they're not as forthcoming as I wish they were for offering services and programs that they have. They want a very formal request through the state process to them for whatever the need and request is. So I think you'll see some real creative solutions as we partner with FEMA and our state agencies.

Bill: That's excellent. That’s an excellent response. So why don't we go to this question: What are the unique challenges that you [face, that] the county faces with this type of event, of this scale? Because it's a catastrophic level, catastrophic event. So the challenges are something that says, this is what we need. We need to change something, or we need to adjust this, or we're happy that we did it this way. So what did — what are the challenges that you see that are unique to Butte County, of course, because you have this fire event?

Tim: So we have the event and then the postevent. And so the event happened, like I say, November 8, [2018]. The focus has been on providing short-term housing needs for people, finding locations. We've had a lot of discussions about, should we set up temporary RV parks, or do we go parcel level for where residential uses are allowed? Essentially, the answer is yes, we're doing it all. Because to provide 14,000 housing units for people, that's a significant lift. And we had about 2,500 homeless before, so it's a housing crisis in Butte County, more so than probably anywhere else in the state. And we've seen people scatter, frankly all across the country from this fire. There's maps that show people are all over the country, literally, from this fire. So housing is a key issue. The debris removal, that has been mentioned, that will go on for a year and a half or so. We have the issue of 500,000 dead and dying trees. That is a very significant issue that has to be factored in before a lot of rebuilding occurs. And that has got to be addressed. It is being addressed. It's probably going to be addressed like it's another disaster. And that's the kind of program we're looking at, essentially a tree-removal program that's on the level of the debris-removal program. So the same kind of thing is coming. We have a water system in the town of Paradise that's contaminated. We have a lot of wells that have been damaged or destroyed that need to be repaired. We have — public sewers [are] a conversation. Paradise was the largest city west of the Mississippi that was on septic systems. And so that's going to be addressed through this rebuild, preplanning process.

Bill: That's great. You have a neighbor, not close but close, in Tuolumne County. And Tuolumne County had a big fire called the Rim Fire. And Tuolumne is now recovering from the Rim Fire and is rebuilding using a 70 million dollar grant from HUD, under [the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) — National Disaster Resilience Competition] program, and addressing the trees — the dead tree, the same tree issues. And they've had some innovative kind of things that — [with] handling the trees and handling the issues of replanting trees and stuff. So my suggestion is you might have a chat with Tuolumne County people. They're the only project in the state of California that got any of this special HUD resilience rebuilding money.

Tim: That's fantastic.

Bill: It's 70 million dollars. But it's handled from the state, not through OES. It’s handled from the housing community development department. That's the agent to do that, but I'm just sharing that with you right now.

Tim: I'll tell you, we in the state have been fantastic from getting help from other counties. Calaveras, Sonoma, Napa, Shasta, Ventura. I mean, we have counties all over the state coming up to help us through this incident. I mean, the emergency, like I say, went on for three weeks. We're not equipped to handle a three-week emergency, to have our emergency-operations center operating 24/7 for three weeks. And so it took a lot of mutual aid, a lot of outside resources, and they continued well after the fire was out to come in and assist. And that's been incredible, having that level of support around the country. Frankly, I mean, from the presidential declaration to our own local health officer declaration early on, which is what's needed to trigger, in our state, our Cal OES services and launch the mutual-aid system. I mean, the system, in my opinion — California and the nation functions its best in emergencies like this. We got to see the best of the best through the state and through the federal partnership.

Bill: That's great. Could you speak a little bit more about the mutual-aid system and how you understand it works in California? Because in other states, they don't have it the way we do in California.

Tim: Ah, OK. Yeah, so the system that I'm aware of is that it starts with a declaration of a local public health emergency by our health officer. Our Board of Supervisors also adopts it, a local public safety emergency. That triggers Cal OES. Cal OES then has all the resources available in the state that they can launch. With a federal disaster, then we access — we have a governor's declaration also of the emergency. And then we also got the presidential [declaration]. So the whole system builds from local, state, to federal, and we're drawing resources from around the country, ultimately, in to fight this fire.

Bill: Right. And the unique thing is in California, it starts from the bottom up. It’s the local people who say —

Tim: Help.

Bill: Help. "We declare this," and then you have — at least in the fire sector — you have predesigned instruments of mutual aid that you sign, and you don't have to worry about paying the money right away. No one asks you for the checkbook.

Tim: Right. And I'll tell you, the other part of this that's key is we have a state emergency management system, the SEMS training, and there's NIMS [National Incident Management System] on the national level. And it's imperative that people take the time to get trained, if you're involved with these incidents, on NIMS in California and SEMS in the national environment, so that you know the system. The protocols, the processes, your roles and responsibilities, and you can execute. Because that's what happened, is that the system — when people are trained, it executes flawlessly. It's really an incredible system of support of a community in crisis.

Bill: OK. Can you speak a little bit about the key elements of the safe — the key parts of the safety elements in the LHMP [local hazard mitigation plan] that your group, your staff is going to be looking at, and how you’re going to look those as positive tools and instruments for future guidance?

Tim: Sure. We're in the process, our county is in the process of updating its local hazard mitigation plan. And we know that as — partnering with that, we have to make updates to our safety element of our general plan. We were on a track to make some of those updates anyway, as far as adaptation and resiliency, to comply with some of the state laws in effect. But I think the, the issue — and we'll go through a community engagement process to do that. We’ll engage with our partners, CAL FIRE. Our fire safe council will be a very active partner in that discussion and a variety of other stakeholders. I think that the key for me — we'll get the plan adopted in a year or so — but the key for me is the action items in the plan. Because the plan, we don't just put on a shelf, right? The plan means something, so we're going to invent programs. And I think we're going to have some really hard discussions ahead of us about, "Are we going to go after the existing housing stock?," which is where, frankly, most of the problem is. It's not a new construction issue. It's a — we've got millions of homes in California at risk. Existing homes. And so we have to tackle the defensible space question, landscape issues — we have to tackle eave vents, gutters, decks. We've got to have these conversations, and we haven't really had those yet. What kind of programs are we going to look to do, to explore? We may explore, when a property is sold, there is required to be some inspection — that's a conversation we'll be having. We're going to have a conversation with the insurance industry, I'm sure, to see — on renewal of policy. Maybe there's a program that is invented to address improvements to the property, because there's maintenance needed on all this, right? So there's the structural — hardening the actual, physical buildings, and then there's also the landscape issues around the structure, so a lot of those to-dos are going to come out of, I believe, our safety element update.

Bill: That's good. I think that's a very positive answer, because the insurance industry themselves would lower premiums if you can demonstrate that the houses that they're insuring are safer, right? They don’t want to pay about —

Tim: Right. I think they're going down that path also, and I think if we go down that path with them and the real estate community as well, I think we can end up with a much safer California.

Bill: That's good. No, I think that's a positive kind of partnership. Now, we have in California something called the CEA, the California Earthquake Authority, which is an insurance agency. It's a quasi-state insurance agency. It's really an insurance company with state representatives on it. But they can invest in things that make houses safer. They're actually giving money for Brace + Bolt programs. They've done it in Northern California and Southern California. They give grants to people to take older houses and screw them down to the foundations. OK? And that's a straight grant.

Tim: Nice.

Bill: And the whole idea is that the house, in a big seismic event, doesn't slide off its foundation. So that's a pre-safety — and they're paying for that out of the premiums of this, of the policyholders. Is there a similar program that would be useful in a place like Butte or a rural area?

Tim: Well, we are applying for a grant. It's a local hazard mitigation grant to study and actually get out there and engage the community in another fire-prone area of Butte County. And our plan is to take several thousand homes, find community leaders, engage with the community and see if we can't essentially go out and make some of these recommendations on specific improvements to homes and properties for landscaping and the structure themselves, and actually impact a community to make it more fire resilient.

Bill: Great. I mean, incentives help. Incentives really work.

Tim: Yes, I believe in them as well.

Bill: So somebody would even give people a small grant to make the first chunk of it — would then help people make the right choice, right?

Tim: Yeah. Maybe we can come up with a gutter-cover program, or a eave vent–replacement program to offer 50 percent funding, or — I've also talked to legislature about a tax-credit program. You know, maybe for — like we have for solar. We have tax credits for solar, things that we want to incentivize in California; we invent incentives through a tax-credit system for fire-safe improvements on a property.

Bill: Right. Now, we do have the CEA, so you have a model to speak from, right?

Tim: Yeah.

Bill: That’s good. OK, so I'd like to go to this, the challenges, right now. Again, on the takeaways and lessons learned, what do you have to tell planners around the US and the world from what you've learned so far?

Tim: So I think that the — through an event, a disaster, you're going to be called to do things that are not in your job description. Because the needs in front of you are so great that you've got to think outside of your normal box of what your job is. And even — we value our general planning and zoning so much, and we do. And so the challenge we had was, how do we respond to a disaster with the needs in front of us, with these housing demands, and still honor and protect our general plan, our land-use vision, for the future of the county as well? And so that opportunity that's there, it requires some flexibility in thinking, some creativity, some partnerships that you haven't thought of before. You're going to be working with people that you've never worked with before. You'll be in meetings with people that you've never been in meetings with before. It will open up, I think, thoughts and discussions that are invaluable to creating solutions for people who are in crisis. I think that your training on your SEMS and NIMS is essential that you be prepared for the disaster that's coming, that you don't shortcut on your general plan and you're thinking that, “Oh, we'll get to it someday.” You need to get to it now. You need to find funding now to update your safety elements and do your hazard mitigation planning now. Be ready for it. Because we have a variety of issues, whether it's hurricanes, floods, fires. I think another question is, where is the proper place to house people? We have floods in the valleys, we have fires in the foothills in the mountains, we have earthquakes, we have sea-level rise. We've got a lot of hazards facing us. We want to protect our farmland, so we don't want to pave over our farmland. We've got to think about infill development in our cities. We do a lot in our general plan, in our county, to encourage and to push the development to the cities, the existing urban areas. To build up, not just out. I mean, that's a planning principle that we believe in to really maximize where these services are and to minimize the footprint and impact on the landscape.

Bill: Tim Snellings, from the County of Butte, you've been great. I think we've learned a lot from your perspective and how you manage your group of 35 people, which isn't a lot of people for all the work you have to do. And I hope that you're successful in putting in the plan update, something about a new element called "Where to Put the People" [both laugh], when the emergency comes.

Tim: Sure.

Bill: In California, we do these scenario events. So we have events like the Haywire event, which you can find on YouTube and which is the big seismic event on the Hayward Fault. We haven't got any — the Butte County event hasn't been done yet, but you have the same issues of the Haywire event. So I think you've told us a lot. You've given us especially good food for thought in what planners need to be trained in, what the skills they have to have, but also that — if you're in a hazard zone where there's a threat, you really have to think about the temporary housing and where you put people. And I think that's why the City of San Francisco wants to make every house in San Francisco earthquake safe, so they don't have to find replacement housing to do that. I mean, the San Francisco position is "shelter in place." We're not moving anyone out. No building's going to collapse. Your situation tells us that probably the San Francisco policy is correct, in the sense that it's hard to replace housing in the short-term. And when people scatter and move, it's likely that in the long-term, Paradise is going to be a smaller place in 20 years than it is now.

Tim: Right. I think that the message I would want to send people is to — it's ultimately property owners’ responsibility to be accountable for their own property being safe, whether it's for seismic or flood or fire. And so people need to be educated on what the needs are in the situation for fire, for creating defensible space. And I think that throughout California, we're going to go after this in a big way to educate our citizens on how to make their homes more fire resilient. But in the end, if a fire comes, and these amber fires are fire storms, and my — and what I've seen is, make your property fire resilient, but if the warnings come, the notifications come, get out of there.

Bill: OK. On that, we’ll close. We appreciate your time and your staff time. Best of luck —

Tim: Thank you very much, Bill. This was great.

Bill: — the next coming year.

Tim: Thank you.

Jim Schwab: Thanks for tuning in to another episode of the American Planning Association podcast. For resources on hazard mitigation and disaster recovery, visit planning.org/resilience. To hear past episodes of the APA podcast, visit planning.org/podcast. You can also subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher. Have an idea for a podcast? Send it to podcast@planning.org.


Other Ways to Listen

Find us on Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, and SoundCloud — or wherever you get your podcasts.