You might call it a sick coincidence. Or you could chalk it up to the new, climate change–driven probability inherent in picking up a book about fire in the month of August. Regardless, I began reading Lizzie Johnson’s Paradise: One Town’s Struggle to Survive an American Wildfire — a harrowing account of the 2018 Camp fire, which burned the Butte County town of Paradise to the ground — just as another Northern California town, Greenville, was almost completely wiped off the map by another mega wildfire.
I toted Johnson’s book along on a camping trip to the eastern Sierra. On the first day, I looked up from the pages describing panicked, gasping residents fleeing an inferno and gazed around at an alpine lake sparkling turquoise beneath an impossibly blue sky. I remembered the Camp fire — its smoke blotted out the sun in San Francisco for days and poor air quality shuttered schools for hundreds of miles — but here by the water in the sun, it seemed like a piece of distant history.
By the afternoon of our second day, however — as I read about how the Paradise residents grappled with the devastation, whether to rebuild, and how to hold Pacific Gas & Electric, the utility whose power lines sparked the fire, responsible — I closed the book and blinked with dismay. It appeared that bits of the story I was reading were starting to come to life all around me.
This summer’s Dixie fire, also possibly sparked by PG&E, had been burning for days and had exploded to more than 400,000 acres by the time my family had arrived in the eastern Sierra. It is now the largest fire in California history, although so far less deadly than the Camp fire, which killed 85 people. The Dixie had mostly been sending its smoke east, to choke residents of Denver and Salt Lake City. But the prevailing winds had shifted, and noxious clouds were cascading hundreds of miles down the spine of the Sierra.
As the sun lowered toward evening, we could no longer see across the lake, let alone behold the granite peaks thrusting toward the heavens on the far shore. The air quality app on our phone warned us it was officially dangerous to breathe. The sound of children coughing echoed through our campground. My husband’s shoulders slumped with disappointment, but he agreed that we had to pack up and leave early.
We drove home in darkness, through smoke that was so thick it coated our skin and left a film in our mouths. Once inside my house, I flipped on the air purifiers and checked to make sure the windows were shut. I picked up Johnson’s book, and then put it back down. Why am I reading this? I asked myself. I already know what happens next. I’ve seen flames explode across hillsides and smoke billow skyward in a fearsome column and then settle across the landscape, and so has almost everyone I know who lives in the West. We know the drill: the days of awakening to a blood-red sun and an eerie dark sky, the grim count of lives lost, people missing, houses incinerated, the obsessive checking of various air quality apps hoping for change in the wind, the welcoming of fire refugees, and the fundraisers to replace what they’ve lost.
We all know we’ll live through a version of it again soon: if not this month, then maybe next; if not this year, then definitely next.
But I kept reading, because even though I knew the story — even though we all know the story — the details are riveting.
The first 250 pages of the book take place over a single day, Nov. 8, 2018. It opens before dawn at a fire station overlooking the Feather River Canyon at the western edge of the Plumas National Forest. Another way to describe the Feather River Canyon — as the book makes clear — is a “tinderbox.” Over the years, devastating fires had sparked in this canyon and then gathered fury and force, and on this particular morning, a captain in the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection was awakened by the sound of ponderosa pine needles falling on the roof “like the raindrops that refused to come.” And if that sounds like a bad omen, it is.
Within hours, flames were racing toward Paradise and other smaller towns in the foothills above the valley floor — moving faster than fire is supposed to move, shocking first responders over and over again with its speed and ferocity.
Johnson chronicles the chaos among emergency responders as they behold the towering flames and try to calculate when to order an evacuation. She reveals the botched orders, the faulty emergency alert system, the officials who initially don’t grasp how dire the situation is. And she also takes the time to give a history of Paradise, a mining and lumber town settlement from the 1860s that grew exponentially — largely without rigorous building codes — in the 1960s and 1970s. Paradise offered affordable small-town charm, Johnson notes, “just beneath the snow-capped cathedrals of the Sierra Nevada.” But it was also a fire trap: It was perched on a ridge, with few roads out.
Once the flames are extinguished, and the dead accounted for, Johnson focuses on the inhabitants’ struggles while living in exile and their agonizing over whether to return to Paradise at all.
But at the core of the book are the nail-biting evacuations of a number of residents as they stumble through the smoky, fiery maze of streets, trying to get out. Johnson lets us get to know her subjects well, and to care deeply about their fates. Rachelle, a young mother who gives birth hours before the fire ignites, passes a terrified day in an ambulance with her premature baby and a faulty IV, trying — and failing — to get out of town. Kevin, a heroic school bus driver, inches through smoke and traffic, attempting to calm his cargo of shocked, coughing children. At one point, he rips up his shirt to create dozens of little wet cloths for the kids to cover their mouths with to protect them from smoke. Tammy, a labor and delivery nurse at Feather River Hospital, takes a break to stand beneath the encroaching flames to call each of her children to apologize for her failings as a mother, to bid them goodbye and to tell them how much she loves them. (She makes it out.)
It’s a gripping read, so tightly woven it feels like fiction. And I wish it were fiction. I wish even more that a version of the story wasn’t coming again, possibly very soon, to impact so many of us.
On Monday, the UN reported that the impacts of climate change cannot be avoided. Across the globe, the smoke continues to swirl. Greece is on fire now, and this week, according to scientists, smoke from Russian wildfires reached the North Pole for the first time in recorded history. In California, the meteorologists warn us that it’s only August, that fire season can stretch into November, or who knows — maybe beyond. This week in the New York Times, Farhad Manjoo asked us to consider whether California is “still California when our weather becomes an adversary rather than an ally.” The writer Sarah Miller, who lives in Nevada City, a town that was menaced by yet another fire just last week, wrote earlier this summer about the futility of words, even poignant, powerful words, in the face of climate change. She asked: “What else is there to say?”
Paradise does what good journalism is supposed to do: It bears witness, in sharp, moving detail, to what happened. But Johnson doesn’t have any answers, any more than anyone else does, to the larger questions. By the time I finished the book, the skies above my home were clear — for now. I ordered some more air filters, and then I went out into my garden to pull some weeds and marvel at the bounty (for once!) of my tomato harvest. But I kept looking in the direction of the mountains to the east, wondering when the smoke would billow forth again. ●