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A crowded park, worsening wildfire danger sparks battle: 'I don't feel safe there anymore'

Hailey Branson-Potts, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

“With the projected growth, if no improvements are made within the park unit, risk of wildfire and impacts to evacuation routes would be higher than if improvements from the general plan were implemented,” State Parks said in a statement to The Times on Friday.

The plan, which would allow the building of up to 135 individual campsites and seven group sites, will be considered by the California State Park and Recreation Commission at its meeting Sept. 30.

“Often when people are opposed to development, it’s for issues of convenience: issues of traffic, noise, et cetera,” said John Michelini, board president of the Foresthill Fire Protection District, one of several public safety agencies opposed to the plan. “This is a matter of life and death and people’s properties.”

Many residents of the small, vulnerable foothill communities surrounding the state park — which are accessed via steep, narrow roads — cite the 2018 Camp fire, which killed 85 people and ripped through Paradise, another mountain town with few paths in and out. Thousands of people trying to flee were stuck in traffic as buildings around them burned. Some died in their vehicles as flames roared over them.

“All you have to do is think about what happened in Paradise, where limited roads cost a lot of lives for people trying to get out that couldn’t,” said Tom Judy, a geologist who has lived in Greenwood, near the state park, for two decades. “That’s one of our greatest fears here.”

On Labor Day weekend, a fire broke out in the Auburn State Recreation Area that was the kind of human-caused disaster that many worry about.


The Bridge fire — which, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, was sparked by an arsonist — burned 411 acres. It forced the park’s closure, shut down roads that are critical escape routes, and jammed others with fleeing cars and emergency vehicles.

Skyler Fulster was steering a boat on Lake Clementine within the park that simmering Sunday when a plume of dark smoke suddenly blotted out the sun. A park ranger, sirens blaring on his boat, sped to each boat, urging people to get off the water.

As he waited for hours with other boaters in a campground, Fulster’s thoughts turned to the narrow roads nearby.

“I was worried about how we would get out of there,” he said.


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