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Lessons, From Paradise Lost

A Year After Devastating California Wildfire, Researcher Explores Links Between Infrastructure, Inequity

By Robert Herschbach

Homes leveled by the Camp Fire line the Ridgewood Mobile Home Park retirement community in Paradise, Calif., on Monday, Dec. 3, 2018.

AP Photo/Noah Berger

Homes leveled by the Camp Fire line the Ridgewood Mobile Home Park retirement community in Paradise, Calif., last December.

One year ago this past Friday, the deadliest wildfire in California history leveled the town of Paradise and surrounding areas, killing 86 and destroying nearly 15,000 homes. Many of those affected were disabled or elderly people living on fixed incomes, and most survivors have yet to return.

A host of factors—climate change, urban development, local politics and the actions of a state utility—combined to create the disaster, said Professor Deb Niemeier, a National Academy of Engineering member who joined the civil and environmental engineering faculty this fall as the inaugural Clark Distinguished Chair. 

At UMD, her research will target aspects of the built environment that give rise to structural inequality, particularly within the context of climate change. Niemeier will also be a faculty affiliate of the Maryland Transportation Institute, an interdisciplinary research hub that brings together expertise from across Maryland universities.She recently spoke to Clark School staff about the need to plan safer, more accessible housing, how civil and environmental engineers can help, and the continuing challenges of building gender equity in STEM fields.

To what extent is the Paradise situation symptomatic of a larger problem? 
The population of Paradise exploded from around 8,000 to 24,000 during the 1970s. It was a place where you could own your own home on a fixed income at a time when California’s real estate values were skyrocketing. Some of the growth came in the form of a standard subdivision layout, with non-gridded streets, cul-de-sacs and limited entry/exitways. These suburban design features are similar to design standards that are still actively used. This design hinders evacuation, and once embers entered subdivisions, it was nearly impossible to stop the structure to structure ignition forward progress. Growth also came in the form of mobile home parks. There were around 33 different mobile home parks located in the area, several of which were large; the fire leveled around 20 of them. Most of the mobile home parks were occupied by seniors on fixed incomes; a lot of them were women and frail. It’s been reported that most of the people who died in the fire were elderly. Nearly a quarter of Paradise residents had a disability (this is double the statewide rate), and 25% of the population was over the age of 65, compared to 14% statewide.

In short, Paradise had an aging, high-disability population living in areas with urban design features that were not particularly conducive to fast evacuation. And the city was surrounded by aging power infrastructure. There are elements of this story that apply to nearly every at-risk community. 

Your current research investigates the intersection between environmental issues—notably climate change—and social issues, particularly problems of inequity. How can climate change exacerbate socioeconomic gaps?
As engineers, we have designed wondrous infrastructure with a very long life. This is good, but it also presents problems. It’s good in that we are able to increase society’s benefits. But it is problematic because the ways infrastructure has been designed and attended to over the last 70 years reflects how society was structured in the past. For example, people of color have less access to good schools, to good transportation. They often have to fight for clean water. Over time, the lack of these basic necessities robs people of opportunity, which produces inequality.

As our society undergoes increasing economic imbalance, these structural inequalities begin to affect even greater swaths of the population. Owning your own home has become increasingly hard, while finding jobs near where you live or accessing a good transportation system is difficult for more and more people. And with climate change, these kinds of barriers will become bigger. People in high-risk areas can’t afford to move and the state can’t afford to create the kind of infrastructure needed to protect their assets. Right now, we are in a cycle of reduce risk and rescue. But this is not sustainable. With climate change, not all risk can be reduced to an acceptable level, and rescues are very expensive. We need a more sustainable vision. 

For young people who aspire to make a difference, what does the field of civil and environmental engineering have to offer?
Civil and environmental engineers are the ones who design and build infrastructure. We have the knowledge and understanding of how things in the built environment connect, and it is the built environment that enables individuals and populations to thrive and succeed in the world. If young people really want to reduce poverty, ensure human rights and tackle inequality, they should study civil and environmental engineering and learn how to create a built environment that serves everyone equitably.

In 2006, you were among the highly accomplished female scientists and engineers highlighted in a New York Times feature story on the challenges facing women who enter scientific fields. How much improvement have you seen since it was published?
I think it is a mixed bag. We have more women and people of color in leadership positions, but in some engineering disciplines we still struggle to attain acceptable levels of undergraduate women. If you look at national statistics, the needle on the percentage of undergraduate women attending an engineering program hasn’t really moved much. Fields like mechanical, electrical, computer science and civil engineering are still way behind the curve in terms of women and people of color. We all need to work harder. 

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