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Rebuilding, Reimagining Paradise

Updated: Feb 29

Marc Mattox guides the restoration and modernization of the Town’s critical infrastructure after California’s most devastating wildfire.



On the afternoon of Nov. 7, 2018, Paradise, California's Public Works Director and Town Engineer Marc Mattox learned that Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) was considering implementing a Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) to reduce wildfire risks from winds gusting in surrounding Butte County. By early the next morning, however, the utility had taken no action, allowing a faulty PG&E transmission line to ignite what would become California’s most deadly and most destructive wildfire, the Camp Fire.

 

“Nov. 8 initially felt like a normal day because power was still on,” Mattox recalls. “But then my office got a few calls about a wildfire 13 miles from Paradise on the other side of Feather River Canyon. While the fire seemed pretty far away it was certainly something to start preparing for.”

 

When Mattox dropped his kids off at school on his way to the office, however, he started to sense that his work day would be anything but normal.

 

“Something’s happening here that feels bigger,” he remembers thinking. “The sky was changing colors and ashes were already falling on the Town.”

 

Running for Safety

Within a few hours, Paradise was in complete evacuation mode as the wind-whipped fire raced down the Feather River Canyon from the town of Pulga to Paradise, consuming the community of Concow along the way. Initially, Mattox and many of his colleagues stayed behind to direct traffic for the mass exodus underway, but eventually, they too had to evacuate from the oncoming firestorm.


Tragically, 85 people died during the Camp Fire. It burned more than 153,000 acres and leveled Paradise and Concow, laying waste to critical infrastructure and destroying about 95 percent of their buildings. Mattox and his family evacuated safely, but they too lost their home to the fire.


Backlit shot of Marc Mattox under tree
Marc Mattox, Public Works Director and Town Engineer, Town of Paradise, Calif. - MM Photo
Rising from the Ashes

Today, Mattox oversees the massive, ongoing effort to restore, rebuild and reimagine the infrastructure of Paradise, virtually from the ground up. From rebuilding the Town’s roads, electric utilities, and telecom systems, to upgrading its stormwater management system to installing a brand-new sewer system, his “small but mighty” team of 20 employees is committed not just to restoring the Town of Paradise to its fully functional past, but also to giving it a smarter, more resilient future.

 





“About 50% of the people now moving to Paradise are moving here for the first time,” Mattox notes. “We’re not just in recovery for people who lost what they had. We’re also creating a community for those who are moving here for something different and something positive for what we’re about. So, that’s really exciting.”

 

Born to Serve

Mattox was born and raised in Redding, Calif., an hour and a half northwest of Paradise. The son of a PepsiCo manager of warehouse operations and a Raley’s pharmacy technician, he grew up in an extended family of engineers fascinated with how stuff works.

 

A drafting class at Foothill High School in nearby Palo Cedro initially steered Mattox toward wanting to become an architect. But once he discovered how easy it was to create and edit 2D and 3D digital designs using his school’s AutoCAD software, he veered sharply toward a career in civil engineering and public service.

 

“I went to California State University, Chico knowing I wanted to get a four-year degree, graduate as quickly as I could and try to get everything lined up,” Mattox explains.


California State University, Chico

On his first day of classes, he also discovered his raison d’etre for pursuing civil engineering.

 

Jim Scolaro, a research assistant professor in civil engineering, gave a lecture on how important civil engineering is for public safety, and how civil engineers can be of great service to their community,” Mattox reminisces. “From that day forward, I knew I was exactly where I needed to be.”

 

Mattox graduated from Chico State in Dec. 2007 with a Bachelor of Applied Science in Civil Engineering.

 

Building Confidence

His first stop professionally was the City of Yuba City, Calif., where he was hired as an assistant engineer. Over the next five years, Mattox commuted an hour each way from Chico to Yuba City filling his resume with public works experience ranging from roads and drainage, sewers and stormwater to water delivery, transportation and ADA compliance.

 

Along the way, he also invested in himself, earning his California Professional Engineer license with a civil designation, a stamp of approval for his training and credibility as a civil engineer.

 

Paradise Found

And then one day in 2012, Mattox learned that the Town of Paradise was hiring.


As its name suggests, Paradise—incorporated in 1979—provided a perfect fit for his career: a shorter commute, an opportunity to grow his expertise in civil engineering, and a chance to serve a community suffering from aging, 20th-century infrastructure.


Mattox went to work for Paradise in Oct. 2012 as an associate civil engineer. In less than three years, he became not only the town engineer but also its public works director, the dual roles he performs today.

 

Thinking Long Term

Even before the Camp Fire ashes had cooled, Mattox and his public works team started developing a long-term recovery plan for Paradise. Topping their list of priorities for restoring and modernizing the Town’s infrastructure were:

 

·       Road repair and renovation

·       Stormwater management

·       Electric and telecom utilities, and

·       Paradise’s first public sewer system.

 

Repair and maintenance of the Town’s water delivery infrastructure, also damaged heavily by the fire, are handled by a separate agency, the Paradise Irrigation District.

 

Assessing the Damage

In Mattox’s opinion, the local infrastructure hit hardest by the Camp Fire was Paradise’s paved roads.


Close up of double yellow line on highway, showing cracks in road and paint
Debris removal caused significant damage to the roads of Paradise. Photo by Max Andrey via Pexels

“Damage to roads resulting from wildfire goes beyond what the eye can see,” he says. “There was also a lot of subsurface cracking due to the increased loading from heavy trucks removing debris following the fire. Paradise alone lost more than 11,000 structures, and all of that debris came through our town streets.”

 

Paradise did a pre- and post-debris-removal analysis of the roads to identify and quantify the amount of cracking of the roads caused by debris removal. Guided by AARB Systems, a specialist in digital laser profiling and imaging technology, the Town created a road-by-road map of the local area detailing the condition of each road.

 

“In disaster recovery, data is king,” observes Mattox. “Using imaging data, we were able to prove, road by road, the damage inflicted on our roads by debris-removal trucks. That data enabled us to secure about $100 million in grants from FEMA and the Federal Highway Administration to repave every public road mile in Paradise.”

 

Optimizing Exit Routes

The Camp Fire also motivated Paradise to rethink the design and configuration of its roads. Chief among the changes made, reveals Mattox, was removing roadway features such as medians and center refuge islands.


Steam shovels and tractor performing road construction
Town of Paradise photo

“Center refuge islands, while great for pedestrian safety, also become obstructions in an evacuation event,” he notes. “As part of our road rehab projects, we made the policy decision to ensure that every foot of our pavement is also part of our evacuation capacity.”

 

To that end, the Town is discussing how best to deal with Paradise’s many dead-end roads, long viewed by residents as a way to ensure privacy.

 

“We have many dead-end roads that invoke a deeper conversation about the character of a neighborhood and why people choose to live there,” Mattox says. “But if we extended those roads (and connected them to other parts of the Town), 99.9% of the time they would just be another road in Paradise, but they could also be lifesaving exit routes if we had another evacuation.”

 

Targeting Stormwater

The Camp Fire also drew attention to Paradise’s outdated stormwater management system.


Floodwaters flowing over local highway in Paradise
Paradise is modernizing its stormwater management system as part of the Camp Fire recovery effort. Town of Paradise photo

Before the fire, the Town allowed stormwater to largely run off via surface flow—down streets, undeveloped roads or wherever gravity took it—creating zones of erosion and lost vegetation.


Its only real stormwater infrastructure comprised open-ended culverts that routed stormwater under Paradise’s main roads. During the fire, however, those culverts—typically constructed with plastic pipes—became a hazard for evacuees when their pipes melted, causing the overlying roads to partially collapse.


As part of modernizing and reimagining Paradise’s infrastructure, Mattox and his team are replacing all of those plastic pipes with fire-resistant reinforced concrete pipes.

 

They also took advantage of an aerial LiDAR survey of Paradise conducted after the fire to create a rainfall-runoff model for the Town. The model, which shows patterns of potential runoff and flooding during heavy rain, also helped them create a storm drain master plan, which also calls for the use of reinforced concrete pipes.

 

Undergrounding Utilities

But stormwater is not the only thing Paradise plans to remove from its streets, advises Mattox.  The Town is also coordinating the undergrounding of all of its electric and telecom utilities using a common trench wherever possible.


Stack of pipes used for undergrounding utilities
Undergrounding utilities such as internet and phone lines will provide Paradise residents and businesses with safer, more reliable communications services. Town of Paradise photo

“Paradise is the only community I'm aware of that's being entirely retrofitted for underground utilities,” he claims. “That includes electric, telecoms and cable.”

 

Putting Septic Systems Down the Drain

One of the few parts of the Paradise infrastructure that was not damaged by the fire was the local sewer system—because it did not exist.

 

“Before the Camp Fire, Paradise was the largest unsewered community west of the Mississippi,” notes Mattox. “Every property had its own septic system and leach field.”

 

Town employee sitting at desk working on engineering drawings
Planning for Paradise's first sewer system is currently underway. Town of Paradise photo

The Town is currently in the planning stages of developing its first sewer system, which will include an 18-mile export pipeline delivering wastewater to the Chico Water Pollution Control Plant.


Paradise hopes to begin construction on the new system in 2025 and complete it in the 2026-27 time frame pending final approvals and adequate funding.

 

“The sewer project is one of our biggest challenges and one of our biggest opportunities to shape our overall recovery,” suggests Mattox. “It will help enable affordable housing, improve our environment and enable more community services, restaurants, etc., that come with more centralized wastewater treatment techniques.”

 

Managing Expectations

When asked about the timescale for Paradise’s full recovery, Mattox is philosophical.

 

“That’s an evolving answer,” he offers. “After the fire, it was easy to get discouraged and say this town may never come back. But now, five years later, we’re thriving, we’re growing and creating something special that could be a model for other communities.”


It’s still difficult to travel too far in Paradise, Mattox admits, without encountering a construction zone—a Town council member likes to joke that the Town monument should be a traffic cone.



But everywhere he looks, he sees a town recovering from events no one could have even imagined five years ago. Still, it might take up to 20 years for Paradise’s population to return to its pre-fire level of 27,000.

 

Making Every Day Count

Mattox, however, is undaunted.

 

“We’re not just measured by what we were, but also by what we can be in the future,” he reflects. “The improvements we make today are going to last 100 years or more, so everything we do today, whether it’s answering e-mails, building a road, or reimagining our stormwater system, really matters. It’s all pretty amazing and I’m grateful to be part of it.”

 

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If you enjoyed reading this article, I hope you'll check out other innovators in infrastructure I've profiled at www.personsofinfrastructure.com/blog. If you have suggestions for other people you'd like to see me profile, please send your ideas to brooks@personsofinfrastructure.com. Many thanks.


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