Le Mort de Paradise

My eyes are tearing up over the fate of the town of Paradise… because of the smoke in the air. No real pity for those who lost their homes/lives. It’s the cost of life in California and what can be done, is being done. Someday the Big One Earthquake will hit and I’ll have my turn in the news.

Since I can’t go out to play this weekend due to air quality, let’s discuss how a fire wiped an entire town off the map. The New Neo has the gist of it:


Paradise is a town—like many other California towns in the foothills—that was an old mining town built on a high ridge. The roads leading out—the only ways out—all followed natural paths downward that were relatively narrow. This was because of the given of the area’s geography. Paradise wasn’t like a town in most flatter places, where there can be a great many ways to get out, and broad highways can be built. And in the case of Paradise, some of the roads out were closed early by the fire, and the main road was clogged with what amounted to a goodly portion pf the population of 27,000 trying to get out all at once.

This is a big reason why I’m a fan of “sheltering in place” disaster preparation. California’s typical disasters can happen with little or no warning. East Coast people don’t know how good they have it, seeing death coming on the weather radar days in advance. Me, I once worked on a rural house that was gone two minutes after its occupants noticed there was a fire.

That sounds like a bad example of “sheltering in place” but here are the details. Like Paradise, it was built on top of a ridgeline. The retaining walls that supported its foundation were untreated wood. The house itself was “historic”, meaning “tinder box”. And the only road out was a thin line of asphalt sprayed onto a cliff face like graffiti. He didn’t give himself the option to bunker up and endure.

Concrete and stone would have not only enabled his house to survive, but he wouldn’t have had to risk his neck a second time by navigating the Switchbacks of Torment while the Pacific Ring of Fire closed in–windshield wipers keeping enough ash off the Jeep that he could see.

Multiply that dude by 20,000 and call it Paradise.

Another issue is that a lot of those towns built around the Sierra Nevadas were temporary towns following the mining work. (White Man was a minority in California prior to the Gold Rush and Transcontinental Railroad.) Low-quality construction not intended to survive more than a hard frost. Many such towns were abandoned when the work ran out, like New Idria. Others thrived; you get one guess how the San Jose Mercury News got its name.

And some became glorified retirement complexes, resort towns and/or hobby farm communes. Like Paradise. Having started as a temporary town, however, it was poorly planned; as a mining town, it was poorly placed; and to be blunt, the cost of living there was low because living there was stupid.

I don’t blame them. Pay your dollar and pick your poison, there’s no “this is the right choice” option in the mortal world. However, when I hear of guys wanting to go off the grid into Nowheresville hoping that the troubles of life will pass them by, I look at a map of the world and think about all those little towns that aren’t on it anymore. Perhaps they’d be better off facing the threats they know instead of trading them for a different set of threats.

Today, I fear that FEMA and charity funds will be used to rebuild this town in the same spot. That would be a poor allocation of resources, specifically my tax money. Let the town die, its survivors starting new chapters of their lives in different locations. Only heaven is our permanent dwelling.


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