PARADISE, Calif. — The sky was turning orange and the embers were flying from the Camp Fire when Oney and Donna Carrell and Donna’s father sped away from their Paradise home.
“I thought, ‘Oh, well, the house is done,’” Oney Carrell said.
A few days later, they learned otherwise. The Carrells’ home survived the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history with a couple of warped window frames, a partially charred down spout and a stubborn smoky smell inside.
Most of their neighborhood was destroyed. A guest house in their backyard, where Donna’s father lived, was reduced to ashes, along with a couple of sheds. Yet their beautifully restored 1940 Studebaker sat untouched in the garage.
The arc of destruction the Camp Fire carved through Paradise was seemingly random: Why were some houses saved and others incinerated? As millions of Californians brace for another wildfire season , a McClatchy analysis of fire and property records shows the answer might be found in something as simple as the roofs over their heads — and the year their house was built.
A landmark 2008 building code designed for California’s fire-prone regions — requiring fire-resistant roofs, siding and other safeguards — appears to have protected the Carrells’ home and dozens of others like it from the Camp Fire. That year marks a pivotal moment in the state’s deadly and expensive history of destructive natural disasters.
All told, about 51 percent of the 350 single-family homes built after 2008 in the path of the Camp Fire were undamaged, according to McClatchy’s analysis of Cal Fire data and Butte County property records. By contrast, only 18 percent of the 12,100 homes built prior to 2008 escaped damage. Those figures don’t include mobile homes, which burned in nearly equal measure regardless of age.
“These are great standards; they work,” said senior engineer Robert Raymer of the California Building Industry Association, who consulted with state officials on the building code.
Yet despite this lesson, California may end up falling short in its effort to protect homes from the next wildfire.
Mushrooming cities such as Folsom, where an 11,000-home development is springing up, have the ability to bypass the state’s safety standards in spite of considerable fire risks. The state, which offers cash incentives to bolster old homes against earthquakes, so far has done nothing to get Californians to retrofit homes built before 2008 for fire safety.
It hasn’t helped that housing construction went into a deep dive in 2008 and has been slow to recover. Raymer said only 860,000 homes and apartments have been built statewide since the code went into effect. That’s just 6 percent of the state’s housing stock.
According to Cal Fire, as many as 3 million homes lie within the various “fire hazard severity zones” around the state. Dave Sapsis, a Cal Fire wildland fire scientist, said there’s no way to know definitively how many of those homes were built before 2008, but he believes “it’s the preponderance of them, the majority.”
The situation is worse in rural California, where housing construction lags but the fire hazards are among the worst in the state, Raymer said. Fewer than 3 percent of the homes in the path of the Camp Fire were built after 2008.
“Most of our inventory that was here prior to the fire was (built) between the ‘40s and the ‘70s,” said Paradise Town Councilman Michael Zuccolillo, a real estate agent. “The average home here was from the ‘70s.”