“No Danger to Paradise,” 911 Callers Were Told as the Deadly Camp Megafire Approached

October 28, 2019
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by Patrice Taddonio Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist

On a sunny, dry November morning, 911 calls started pouring in to the police department in Paradise, California.

I wanna report a fire…” 

“I see fire…”

“It’s raining ash where I live…”

Caller after caller were told that they were not in danger, by a dispatcher who hadn’t yet heard anything to the contrary from Cal Fire, the state’s fire service.

But in reality, what would become the deadliest and most destructive fire in California’s history was hurtling towards the town and its residents at a rate of 80 football fields a minute.

In the upcoming FRONTLINE documentary Fire in Paradise, Carol Ladrini, the dispatcher who was fielding those initial 911 calls on Nov. 8, 2018, speaks out publicly for the first time.

“It breaks my heart that I and anybody else that was answering the phone that day was not able to give them more information, better information, faster information,” she says.

Her account of what happened that morning suggests a troubling breakdown in communication between an overwhelmed Cal Fire and local authorities as the unprecedented blaze, sparked by a failed PG&E power line, rapidly spread.

As the above excerpt from the documentary recounts, Cal Fire normally notifies Paradise Police if a fire is threatening the town. As 911 callers were reporting sightings of a fire, they hadn’t done so — so Ladrini says she contacted the state agency herself. She was told that the fire remained north of Concow. The remote settlement is four miles away from Paradise, across a steep canyon that previous blazes have rarely crossed.

“Generally, a fire that far away would never even get close to Paradise,” Ladrini says.

Cal Fire’s forces had mobilized when the blaze began, but struggled to convey information about how fast it was moving. High winds prevented them from tracking or fighting the fire from the air.

“We typically get our fire intelligence, what the fire’s doing, how fast it’s spreading, from our own line personnel, fire fighters,” Cal Fire Division Chief John Messina, the Camp Fire incident commander, says in the documentary. This fire, though, almost immediately overwhelmed the people fighting it: “As soon as our firefighters engaged, they went right into rescue mode,” Messina says. “They were no longer able, nor did they really care, where the fire was spreading. They were too busy on rescuing civilians and ensuring, of, their own safety. So we didn’t get a lot of intelligence on how fast the fire was spreading.”

As Ladrini’s shift continued, the calls from Paradise residents reporting smoke and ash kept coming. Concerned, Ladrini says she called Cal Fire a second time.

“What I said was, ‘Can you confirm with me that this is north of Concow, that this is not in Paradise? People say there’s ashes falling,’” she tells FRONTLINE. “’Yes, it’s north of Concow,’ that’s the words that I got. ‘OK.’ So I continued to tell the people that were calling that we were not under threat.”

In one particularly striking exchange heard in the above excerpt, a caller asks Ladrini at 7:39 a.m. whether she should evacuate. “No, you’ll be notified,” Ladrini says. “There’s a fire north of Concow … No danger to Paradise, OK?”

But by 7:45 a.m., just an hour and twenty minutes after the fire began 7.5 miles from Paradise, the fire had crossed the canyon. Cal Fire issued an evacuation order for residents on Paradise’s east side, but not for those elsewhere in the town — who Ladrini continued to tell that they weren’t in danger, even as they reported “raining ash.”

Then, 18 minutes after fire entered Paradise, Ladrini received a call from Cal Fire saying that a mandatory evacuation order had just been given for the entire town.

In the excerpt, we hear both the call and Ladrini’s shocked response: “Are you serious?”

By the time it would finally be extinguished, the fast-moving Camp Fire had burned an area the size of Chicago, destroyed around 30,000 people’s homes, decimated the town of Paradise, and killed 85 people.

“It breaks my heart that – that they got a false sense of security,” a visibly pained Ladrini says elsewhere in the documentary, referring to the callers she spoke with that morning before the evacuation order was issued. Ladrini has since left her job with the Paradise police.

“I’m done, for what it did for me,” she told FRONTLINE. “It kind of snowballs on you.”

For more on how the Camp Fire started and spread, watch Fire in Paradise. Airing ahead of the one-year anniversary of the megafire, the documentary from director and producer Jane McMullen tells the inside story of the deadly blaze — and raises tough questions about who and what are to blame for its catastrophic toll.

Fire in Paradise premieres Tuesday, Oct. 29 at 10 p.m. EST/9 p.m. CST. Tune in or stream on PBS (check local listings), at PBS.org/frontline, on the PBS Video App, and on YouTube.

The image at the top of this post is from approximately 7:30 a.m. in the Concow area the morning of the Camp Fire, before it spread to the town of Paradise.

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