Wildfires Are Not a Seasonal Problem. The Trauma Is Year-Round
In the fall of 2018, Paradise, California, a small town among the high, forested buttes at the northern end of the Central Valley, was a tinderbox. The hot summer had sucked the moisture out of the grass and the pine forest. Demon winds blew through the trees and canyons. Everyone knew that each day was a dance with the devil, that a stray spark or bolt of lightning could turn Paradise into an inferno. And they were right: On the morning of November 8th, a gust pulled a heavy electrical line from an old hook on a World War I-era transmission tower. The 143-pound, 115-kilovolt wire fell through the air, creating a bolt of electricity that zapped the old steel tower, raining droplets of molten metal down onto the dry grass.
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“That was all it took,” Lizzie Johnson writes in her new book, Paradise: One Town’s Struggle to Survive an American Wildfire. “How easily this parched land burned, incinerating with a soft crackle that deepened into a howl.” Within minutes, the hillside was ablaze; within hours, the town of Paradise was gone. Eighty-five people died and thousands of lives were forever charred.
Johnson’s account of the Camp Fire that consumed Paradise is a masterful feat of reporting and climate-era storytelling. She has taken the story of a rough-hewn town of retirees and Trumpers, population 27,000 (pre-fire), and turned it into a parable of suffering and loss, of love and heroism. Johnson, who covered the Camp Fire as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, has a movie producer’s eye for great dramatic characters and a knack for revealing details. Kevin McKay, a young school bus driver rolls up to work the morning of the fire in a cherry-red Mustang, still mourning the loss of his Bordeaux mastiff, Elvis, which he had euthanized the night before. Within hours, he is driving through a tunnel of flames with a bus full of 22 kids. When Rachelle Sanders, who gave birth by C-section to her son the morning of the fire, is hurriedly evacuated from the hospital, Johnson notes that Sanders’ catheter was still wrapped around her leg as she and her son squeezed into the back of a sedan driven by a 58-year-old biomedical technician she had never met.
Now, the Golden State is in the midst of yet another horrific fire season. Greenville, a town not far from Paradise, has been consumed by the 730,000-acre Dixie Fire, which is still burning and is the single largest wildfire in California history. The 117,000-acre Caldor Fire is spreading uncontrolled adjacent to one of the most densely populated areas of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Eventually these fires will burn out and fade from the headlines and Twitter feeds. But the suffering and loss of people who have had their lives consumed will linger. The story of the climate crisis is too often one of cascading catastrophes and alarming science; the power of Paradise comes from Johnson’s ability to slow down and sift through the ashes of the human heart to find a deeper resonance.
I talked with Johnson, who recently moved east and took a job at the Washington Post, about the challenges of turning her newspaper reporting into a book; how PG&E, the California electric utility that sparked the fire, has dodged accountability; and about the hidden emotional toll of the climate crisis.
The other day, you tweeted that before you started reporting Paradise, you thought you knew fire. What did you think you knew and what did reporting and writing this book teach you?
Before the Camp Fire, the worst fires I covered were the wine country fires in 2017, and those were very hard to see. But with that, there were zones where the fire hit really hard and once you drove out of them you were back into civilization again. That is what I thought fire looked like. But with the Camp Fire, it was just total and complete destruction. Just the way that Paradise was set up — when you were going up there, it felt like you were ascending into hell because you’re on this two lane road with canyons on both sides and the ground was totally scorched. And you get up there and, you know, it was just absolutely everything gone. It was just like an island with fire. And it changed my perception of how bad it could be and what stood to be lost.
How soon after the fire did you get there?
I was sent up to Paradise on the day the fire started, but obviously there were so many people evacuating that I didn’t actually make it up there until early the next morning. And so the fire was still burning at that point. The trees were smoking, the houses were smoking. It was just utter obliteration. I had never seen anything like it before. It was just like everything being gone in a way where you’re like, “Oh, this is like an entire world of people that just got blasted off the face of the Earth.”
You covered the fire for the San Francisco Chronicle. Why did you decide to expand it into a book?
With fire coverage, I had noticed that I kept seeing the same story being told over and over and over. Stories of people sifting through the ash for their wedding rings or their China or whatever there is to be found. And then that’s all you really said about the victims. When I saw Paradise, the place really struck me, and in talking to the people, I just thought there’s something really special about this community and I wanted to understand it better. I also wanted to get people to understand that this is what we have to lose. I think climate change can feel so abstract sometimes. And so I really wanted to paint a picture of what can be lost.
There are lots of different ways you could have chosen to tell this story. The structure of Paradise is very novelistic, built around the lives of a handful of characters.
When I was reporting, I just knew I wanted to connect with people who I felt were representative of the town and people, that readers could identify with from many different walks of life. And so I just talked to as many people as I could, until I found those people whose stories kept me up at night. I kept thinking about them. So they became the backbone of the story. There was the new mother who had just given birth. There was the father trying to evacuate the six-year-old. There was the bus driver trying to escape the fire with a busload of kids. Just ordinary people who were thrust into these situations where they had to make really hard decisions, not knowing if they were going to survive. And wrapped around that — I call it eating the spinach — I wanted people to learn about where we were building in California and why we were building in those places and what the legacy of that looks like as the climate changes, and the fallout of corporate negligence and all of these electrical towers that hadn’t been maintained to the point where it came down to one hook failing and the whole town going up in flames. We have to feel what that loss is like in order to make any sort of change or conversation for the future. This doesn’t have to keep happening.
In an interview on NPR, you said that what you saw in Paradise “ruined by brain for a long time.” What did you mean by that?
You know, I always hesitate to talk about this because I’m not the story and the people I wrote about suffered so much. But I also think that the reality is that sometimes it’s really hard to bear witness to these events and to meet people where they’re at, and talking to hundreds of traumatized people, getting in situations where I also felt like I was in danger with something that really stuck in my brain for a long time. At one point I had to go through and listen to every single 911 call from that morning and I felt like I couldn’t hold a normal conversation for a couple of weeks.
What was the most difficult interview you had to do during the reporting of this book?
I honestly think it was just any time I was talking with the families of the people who had died. Eighty-five people that died in that fire … I cannot think of a more horrific death than literally burning alive. As a journalist, all you can do is hold space for them and listen to their story. You can’t make it better for them. You want to believe that bad things don’t happen to good people, but they do.
It’s got to be weird for you right now with a book out about this at the same time that fires in California are burning again.
It’s hard. You know, I’m hearing from so many of the people that I wrote about in the book, about how they are still struggling. And now there is more fire, and some of it is very nearby. Sometimes it all just feels very futile.
Even for me, a Northern California native who cares a lot about that part of the country, it’s hard to keep track of all the fires – there’s the Dixie fire, the Caldor fire, the Monument fire. I fear that anyone who doesn’t live in the immediate vicinity of the flames will normalize it and stop paying attention.
That’s a big reason why I wanted to write the book, because I think that when you’re looking at acres burned, or number of homes destroyed, or number of people who died, it can feel very abstract, like those fires get flattened to just a statistic. It shouldn’t get to a point where it’s just totally normalized and we’re just used to another place burning down every summer. I just hope that, by understanding Paradise and the people who tried to live their lives there and make a home there, readers will realize that the pain is ongoing and the fire still lives on in the minds of so many people. And you can’t just get used to it and be like, “Oh, yeah, another fire somewhere in California.” We can’t let ourselves get to that point, because what kind of future does that leave us with?
As part of your reporting, you enrolled in a firefighting academy?
I did that partly for my own safety because I had been in situations before where I felt like the hair on the back of my neck was rising up. Also, I was just trying to understand firefighting better, how fire moves, how firefighters think. It was a two-week-long course. And it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I was one of two women in a class of 50 men. But I made it through and at the end the fire captain was like, “You actually did better than some of the actual recruits that were here.”
You talk throughout the book about PG&E’s role in causing this fire. How would you summarize the role PG&E played and the kind of responsibility they’ve shown for what happened in Paradise?
PG&E had a long record of starting fires and disasters that killed people. The wine country in 2017, the Camp Fire in 2018, the Kincade Fire in 2019. And then it sounds like they’re responsible for Dixie Fire again this year. And so I think when you hear about that much damage and people’s lives that are shattered in ways that can’t get put back together, it just seems very wrong that a utility can get fined so little and just walk away from it [after pleading guilty to one count of unlawfully causing a fire and 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter, PG&E was fined $3.48 million]. You want there to be more justice than that, but that’s just not the way the system is set up. And we also need power in California. So it’s not like you can just put PG&E out of business. It’s a very necessary utility. So it all just feels futile because the utility just keeps causing fires. It is infuriating, especially when you see that three years after the fire, people are still really, really suffering. PG&E could have prevented all this but they didn’t.
I completely agree with you about the importance of holding PG&E accountable for this, and your book is very good at pointing out their negligence and attempts to dodge responsibility. But there is another part of me that says, “Look, it’s the hot climate that is cooking California. These wildfires are a result of the heat and drought that is drying out the forests and turning the whole state into a tinderbox.” As long as the world keeps burning fossil fuels, which is the main driver of this extreme heat and drought, there’s a kind of inevitability about these fires, isn’t there?
Yes. And I think that’s why so many people have just started to feel resigned to these awful fire seasons every summer, because it’s not as simple as saying, “PG&E’s causes all the fires, they are the bad guy.” It’s a lot more complicated than that. You have housing in places where housing shouldn’t be, you have forests that are diseased and overgrown, you have a changing climate. You have vulnerable electrical grids. It’s like, how do you even start to pick apart that knot to figure out what to do next? I think that’s why people can start to feel very powerless.
When was the last time you were in Paradise?
That was two years after the fire. How did the town feel to you?
Every time I go back to Paradise, it looks a little different. For the first year or so after the fire, there was debris lying everywhere, and there is something kind of comforting in how tangible that was, where you see the destruction and that gave you a sense of what happened there. But now that it’s totally wiped bare, that destruction is just in your head. You see lot after a lot where most of the houses are gone and it just looks like the middle of a forest. And then you’ll stumble upon a house going up. But progress is really slow, and a lot of people are realizing that they can’t come back because they can’t afford it, or emotionally they can’t handle it. It’s sort of maddening to see the pain that just continues on for all of these people.
Are there any tangible lessons that can be learned from what happened in Paradise?
I think people have started to take the evacuation alert system a lot more seriously than they did before. Communities are thinking about how to get people out for the worst-case scenario. I think the Camp Fire taught California that you can’t just assume that it’s not going to happen to you, because it probably will at some point, or to someone you know or someone you love. And so you cannot just distance yourself from it.
Also, I think it’s important to have more conversations about work that can be done before these fires start. That means doing preventative burning, trying to enact change on the landscape before the fire season happens. For a really long time, people were so against that because they didn’t want to see smoke in the sky in February. And I think now there’s this big push where people understand why that’s so important.
Finally, people need to think more about where they’re moving. Maybe this is starting to change a little. I heard people talking the other day and they were like, “Oh, I would love to go live by Yosemite, and maybe I would have done that a few years ago but now I’m not going to because of the fires.” I think more conversations need to happen about where we should live, and can live.
Even beyond that, the Camp Fire made climate change feel real in a way that it hadn’t for a lot of people up until that point. When you’re hearing about rising sea levels or a disappearing Arctic, climate change just feels like something that’s on the distant horizon. The Camp Fire was just so big and un-ignorable that people really felt like, “Oh, climate change is here and it’s real and it’s coming fast and we need to start figuring out ways to deal with it better.”
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