It’s a strange coincidence, to say the least. Or you could blame it on the new, climate-change-related risk of reading a book about fire during the month of August.
Regardless, I started reading Lizzie Johnson’s Paradise: One Town’s Struggle to Survive an American Wildfire — a horrifying account of the 2018 Camp fire, which destroyed the Butte County town of Paradise — just as another Northern California town, Greenville, was nearly razed to the ground by another huge wildfire.
On a camping trip to the eastern Sierra, I brought Johnson’s book with me. I looked up from the pages portraying frightened, panting inhabitants fleeing an inferno on the first day and looked around at an alpine lake glittering azure against an unbelievably beautiful sky. I recalled the Camp fire — whose smoke blocked out the sun in San Francisco for days and caused terrible air quality to close schools for hundreds of miles — but it felt like a distant memory here by the lake in the sun.
However, by the afternoon of our second day, when I read about how Paradise people dealt with the destruction, whether or not to rebuild, and how to hold Pacific Gas & Electric, the utility whose power lines started the fire, accountable, I had closed the book and blinked with disappointment. It seemed as though pieces of the story I was reading were beginning to come to life all around me.
By the time my family arrived in the eastern Sierra, the Dixie fire, which was probably possibly ignited by PG&E, had been blazing for days and had grown to more than 400,000 acres. It is currently the state’s biggest fire, albeit it is considerably less devastating than the Camp fire, which claimed the lives of 85 people. The Dixie has been primarily throwing its smoke east, choking Denver and Salt Lake City residents. However, the winds had altered, and poisonous clouds were flowing hundreds of miles down the Sierra’s spine.
We could no longer see across the lake as the sun began to set, much alone the granite peaks pushing toward the skies on the opposite bank. Our phone’s air quality app told us that it was technically unsafe to breathe. Our campsite was filled with the sound of youngsters coughing. My husband’s shoulders sagged with disappointment, but he agreed that we needed to pack things and go as soon as possible.
We drove home in the dark, surrounded by heavy smoke that covered our skin and left a film in our mouths. I turned on the air purifiers and double-checked that the windows were closed once I was inside my house. I took Johnson’s book off the shelf and set it down again. I’m not sure why I’m reading this. I questioned myself. I already know what’s going to happen. Almost everyone I know who lives in the West has seen flames erupt across hillsides and smoke billow aloft in a terrifying column before settling across the landscape. The days of waking up to a blood-red sun and an eerie dark sky, the grim score of lost lives, people missing, and homes incinerated, the obsessive checking of diverse air quality apps in the hopes of a change in the wind, the welcoming of fire refugees, and the fundraisers to replace what they’ve lost are all familiar.
We all know it’ll happen again soon: if not this month, then next; if not this year, then next year.
But I kept reading because the details are fascinating, even though I knew the narrative — we all know the story.
On November 8, 2018, the first 250 pages of the book are written in a single day. It begins before dawn at a fire station on the western edge of the Plumas National Forest, overlooking the Feather River Canyon. As the book explains, the Feather River Canyon may also be described as a “tinderbox.” Disastrous fires had erupted in this canyon throughout the years, and on this particular morning, a captain with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection was awoken by the sound of ponderosa pine needles dropping on the roof “like the raindrops that hesitated to arrive.” That sounds like a terrible sign, and it is.
Within hours, flames were rushing toward Paradise and other tiny communities in the valley’s foothills, moving faster than fire is intended to go and frightening first responders with its speed and fury.
As emergency responders look at the soaring flames and try to figure out when to order an evacuation, Johnson documents the confusion. She discloses the erroneous orders, the malfunctioning emergency warning system, and the officials who first underestimate the gravity of the issue. She also takes the time to offer a history of Paradise, a mining and lumber town founded in the 1860s that developed dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s, mostly without strict construction rules. “Just under the snow-capped temples of the Sierra Nevada,” Johnson writes, “Paradise provided inexpensive small-town charm.” It was also a fire hazard because it was located on a ridge with few exit routes.
Johnson concentrates on the residents’ hardships while living in exile and their agony over whether to return to Paradise at all once the flames have been doused and the dead have been accounted for.
The nail-biting evacuations of a number of people as they fumble through the smoky, flaming maze of streets attempting to get out are at the heart of the book. Johnson allows us to get to know her characters and care strongly about their outcomes. Rachelle, a young woman who gives birth just hours before the fire breaks out, spends a terrifying day in an ambulance with her preterm baby and a malfunctioning IV, attempting — but failing — to flee the city. Kevin, a brave school bus driver, makes his way through smoke and gridlock, trying to soothe his terrified, coughing passengers. He rips up his shirt at one point, creating hundreds of little wet cloths for the youngsters to use to cover their mouths and shield themselves from the smoke.
Tammy, a Feather River Hospital labor and delivery nurse, takes a break to stand beneath the advancing flames and phone each of her children, apologizing for her failures as a mother, bidding them farewell, and telling them how much she loves them. (She deduces it.)
It’s an engrossing book with a tight weave that makes it seem like fiction. And I wish it was a work of fiction. I hope even more than a re-telling of the narrative, maybe very soon, would not have such an impact on so many of us.
The United Nations announced on Monday that the effects of climate change cannot be prevented. The smoke continues to spiral over the world. Greece is now on fire, and experts claim that for the first time in recorded history, smoke from Russian wildfires reached the North Pole this week. In California, meteorologists warn that even though it is just August, fire season might go until November or perhaps later. Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times urged us to evaluate whether California is still California “when our weather becomes an opponent rather than an ally” this week. Sarah Miller, a writer who lives in Nevada City, which was just threatened by yet another fire, wrote earlier this summer on the futility of words, even emotional, powerful words, in the face of climate change. “What what more is there to say?” she inquired.
Paradise achieves what good journalism is meant to do: it gives witness to what happened in crisp, moving detail. But, like everyone else, Johnson doesn’t have any solutions to the bigger questions. The skies over my house were clear — for the time being — by the time I completed the book. I went out into my garden to remove some weeds and marvel at the richness (for once!) of my tomato harvest before ordering some more air filters. But I couldn’t take my eyes away from the mountains to the east, wondering when the smoke might billow again.
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