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New Timeline of Deadliest California Wildfire Could Guide Lifesaving Research and Action


On a brisk November morning in 2018, a fire sparked in a remote stretch of canyon in Butte County, California, a region nestled against the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Fueled by a sea of tinder created by drought, and propelled by powerful gusts, the flames grew and traveled rapidly. In less than 24 hours, the fire had swept through the town of Paradise and other communities, leaving a charred ruin in its wake.

The Camp Fire was the costliest disaster worldwide in 2018 and, having caused 85 deaths and destroyed more than 18,000 buildings, it became both the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history, two records the fire still holds today.

What made the Camp Fire so devastating? And what lessons can we learn to prevent another disaster of this scale? Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have begun to answer these questions by investigating the conditions leading up to the fire and meticulously reconstructing the sequence of events describing the first 24 hours of its progression. A new report containing the timeline identifies areas where more research is needed to improve life safety and reduce structural losses. It also offers a detailed look at how a large and deadly fire advances — information that will become increasingly valuable as fire seasons continue to intensify.

“The information we collected on the timeline is extremely powerful by itself, not only for Paradise but for other similar communities, to help them understand what they may encounter and better prepare, whether it is at a community or at the first responder level,” said NIST fire protection engineer Alexander Maranghides, who led the timeline reconstruction.

To piece together the puzzle of the Camp Fire, the team carried out discussions with 157 first responders, local officials and utilities personnel who were present during the fire. The team documented sightings of fire or smoke and efforts to fight the fire or evacuate, as well as insights into community preparedness and weather conditions.

The researchers sought to back up observations made during the fire with additional data sources before adding new puzzle pieces to the timeline. With the help of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), Paradise Police Department and others, the team gained access to and reviewed large data sets, including radio logs, 911 calls, dashboard and body camera recordings, and drone and satellite images. They also looked to images in social and news media to corroborate the sightings of discussion participants.

By the end of the painstaking process, the authors of the report incorporated more than 2,200 observations into the timeline, which is broken up into 15 separate segments to capture concurrent events throughout different sections of Butte County.

To read more, see the full story at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).