Exploring the Conditions that Led to the Camp Fire, Five Years Later

The fire exploded across Paradise, reducing thousands of homes to ashes within a few hours and killing 85 people who couldn’t escape the flames.

At its peak, the Camp Fire, which ignited five years ago this week, on Nov. 8, 2018, spread as far as 80 football fields every minute.

The Camp Fire started in an area that has some of the most severe fire weather on the West Coast. It also has hot summers and wet winters, and grows trees and brush as well as just about anywhere.

There are few economical options for managing large, remote areas of wildland brush aside from prescribed fire, which is very difficult to use in this area due to the severe fire weather and the large number of buildings. Many of the private parcels in the area are larger than a small landowner can really keep up with cutting brush on, and even people who have spent tens of thousands of dollars on brush clearance lost their homes in the fire.

All of the area burned in the Camp Fire’s initial push out of the Feather River Canyon and across Concow burned hot in 2008. Just ten years of regrowth, along with the leftover dead material from the 2008 fire, were enough to drive this catastrophic fire.

Except for the industrial timberlands in the fire area, just about everything else is brush and small private parcels. There is very little public forest land anywhere in the entire 100,000 acre+ burn area.

How did the fire grow so quickly? These images tell part of the story.

The Camp Fire started upstream of Pulga and was pushed upslope by strong NE winds. Cresting the first hill, it rained embers across large areas of the Concow Basin. Concow burned hot in 2008 and has a lot of dense brush and grasslands which were very dry, and quickly spread the fire downwind.


The perimeter of the Camp Fire in red, with the 2008 Butte Lightning Complex and Humboldt Fire (top) shown in blue.


The Camp Fire started to the right of Pulga, and the topography of the drainage above funneled the wind and carried the fire quickly to the ridge. This drainage burned in 2008.


Infrared satellite images of the Camp Fire burning from Pulga through Paradise, at 10:45 p.m., on Nov. 8, 2018. The fire started between Pulga and Poe Dam and ran up Flea Valley Creek. As it got onto the upper slopes of the Canyon, it rained embers across large areas of the Concow Basin. Data source: LANDSAT 8.


Looking down Flea Valley Creek toward Pulga. The Camp Fire started to the left of the mouth of this side-canyon and ran uphill and to the right. The left side of the creek was salvage logged after 2008 fires, areas on the right were not. The property boundary between Sierra Pacific Industries lands and National Forest is roughly parallel to the culvert – the National Forest land has dead trees, the SPI land has the stumps.


Directly over the ridge from the previous photo. The fire ran up the hill behind this perspective and cast embers into the Concow Basin. Paradise is behind the clouds on the right of this photo, 5 miles southwest. Small trees in the middle of the photo were planted following salvage logging after a large fire in 2008.


On the ridge between Flea Valley Creek and Concow. This is an example of “needle-freeze,” showing how hard the winds were blowing when the fire arrived and “froze” the needles in place. These trees are about 9 years old, planted following salvage logging after the 2008 fires. Photo Nov. 28, 2018.


Concow Basin, before the 2008 fires. Flea Valley Creek is in upper right.


Concow Basin, after the 2008 fires. (Image from June 2009).


Looking west across the Concow Basin toward Paradise. The Camp Fire moved across this image from the bottom to the top. The land was still very open following the hot fire that burned through the area in 2008. Dry skeletons of the brush killed during the 2008 fire stood amid thick, 10 year-old brush and dry grass. Scotch broom was present in many of the disturbed areas. In places where broom grows under pine trees, it catches pine needles, creating a perfect “cloud” of fuel. Dead trees from the 2008 fire have added their branches to the overall fuel loading. With not much canopy of mature trees to shelter the surface fuels from the high winds, the fire raced across the basin, spotting miles ahead of itself. The fire spread 5 miles across this image in less than an hour. Light brown areas on the right and upper-center of this image are commercial timberlands that were clearcut and replanted following the 2008 wildfires.


The fire spotted across the West Branch Feather River in many places, and quickly became established on top of Paradise Ridge. Light brown areas in the foreground are commercial timberland that was clearcut and replanted following the 2008 fire.


Once the fire was in Paradise, it was driven by wind and fuel. Burning structures added fuel and embers to the mix, and the fire ripped across the entire city in a matter of a couple of hours.


Infrared satellite images of homes and mobile home parks burning in Paradise, at 10:45 a.m., on Nov. 8, 2018. Data source: LANDSAT 8. View from south. West Branch of the North Fork Feather River is on left.


Infrared satellite images of the Camp Fire burning through Paradise, at 10:45 a.m., on Nov. 8, 2018. Data source: LANDSAT 8. View from north. Fire in upper-left corner is in Honeyrun Creek.


Infrared satellite images of the Camp Fire burning through Paradise, at 10:45 a.m., on Nov. 8, 2018. Data source: LANDSAT 8. View from west. Fire in foreground is in Honey Run Creek.


Another major influence on the Camp Fire was its location on the larger landscape. The ignition point of the fire is right where all of the cold air drainage of the North Fork Feather River piles up at the bottom of the watershed. Every night in the summer, winds gust over 25 miles per hour blow through this area, piling up where the River curves around Big Bend Mountain, and rushing westward out over the Concow Basin. The strong NE winds poured off of the deserts of Eastern Oregon and NW Nevada, flowing down the River and blasting onto the new ignition at Pulga.


Weather data for the Camp Fire ignition period, from Jarbo Gap, a few miles away. Winds were sustained over 20 mph the night before the fire, and relative humidities were under 25%. This dried the surface fuels to critically-low levels, and sustained winds during the day of the fire pushed it across the bone-dry landscape.


This is not the first time down-canyon winds have driven rapid rates of fire spread in this area. The Poe Fire was started when a tree hit a powerline about 6 miles downstream in 2001. It blew up on the first night, burning over 75 structures. At the time, it was Butte County’s most destructive fire on record. This graphic looks south, and shows how strong downcanyon winds (overnight) drove fire spread.