After the Camp Fire, Paradise is still home
How our connection to place will shape the future of the West.
No one told Rebecca Appel to evacuate. When she saw flames cresting the ridge near her home, she frantically loaded her two daughters, ages 7 and 4, and two dogs into the family’s Nissan Armada and fled.
Skyway, the main road out, was at a standstill as tens of thousands of residents scrambled to leave. As Appel waited on the clogged roadway, her car caught fire from the intensity of the heat — the windshield wipers and window seals started melting — but she couldn’t drive forward to get away. For a moment, she thought they were going to die. “As a parent, there is nothing more horrifying than not being able to protect your children,” Appel said.
Appel escaped, becoming one of an estimated 37,000 people who survived the now-notorious Camp Fire. The November 2018 blaze became California’s most destructive on record, consuming 18,804 structures and 85 lives. Now, more than a year later, she has started rebuilding her home on the same plot of land that burned before, despite knowing that more wildfires are likely.
Her choice defies an intuitive logic: People shouldn’t stay in disaster-prone places. But disaster researchers have found that survivors’ most common response, by far, to events like the Camp Fire is an overwhelming desire to return. The reason lies in the fundamental connection to place — a complicated mix of psychology, economics and social networks that, in combination, make people decide to stay put, even in the most vulnerable circumstances.
Climate change is increasing the risks of natural disaster in the West — rising seas, hotter climates, increased wildfires and diminishing water supplies. All these forces have the potential to rewrite the lives and landscapes of the region, yet our relationship to the place we call home remains central to how we respond.
Returning home is not always possible, and extreme disasters create millions of climate refugees every year.
But in situations less severe, people find ways to adapt, something that can be easier for a post-disaster community than moving away. Relocating has all sorts of impacts on people’s lives: They may have to commute longer, live farther away from friends and family, or be forced to leave their jobs. The net impact, said Robert B. Olshansky, professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is that it can create more strain for people to uproot their entire lives than it does for them to weather periodic disasters.
This was the case for the majority of residents after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Olshansky helped conduct a study of a relief program for homeowners that found that 88% of them chose to stay put. Many were low-income, the study found, underscoring the pivotal role economics plays in decision-making. Often, low-income populations lack the resources to simply pack up and start again elsewhere from scratch.
The psychology of place also plays a pivotal role in our response to natural disaster. Environmental psychologists, who study our psychological and emotional connections to our environment, note that the cumulative experiences that comprise our lives are imprinted on our physical landscapes. “Meeting friends, having family outings, getting married or graduations, death and burial of loved ones — those are all very deeply rooted in place,” said Daniel Iacofano, an environmental planner and psychologist.
Piper McDaniel is a crime and public safety fellow at The Oregonian where she covers breaking news and reports on natural disasters, environment and vulnerable populations. Her work has been published in the LA Times, Huffington Post, and others.