The awful thing about disasters is that most are predictable but somehow not preventable. Lizzie Johnson’s “Paradise: One Town’s Struggle to Survive an American Wildfire” shows just how prone humans are to overlook the catastrophes coming their way. As wildfires again sweep through the West, survivors sorting through the molten plastic and fried asbestos look about desperately for someone to blame. But finding the guilty party for the monster fires that now occur every year is not so easy.

Cover courtesy of Crown

Before flames burned the town to the ground in 2018, Paradise was just as its name describes. It sat high on a ridge commanding a view of valleys, canyons, streams and forests of ponderosa pine. Residents enjoyed short commutes, swimming holes, hiking trails, and cheap, quarter-acre lots with little zoning and low taxes. Even people without much money (the median household income in 2018 was $49,000 a year) could build their dream house in Paradise.

The town started during the 19th-century Gold Rush as a mining camp, on the land of displaced Native Americans. The local Konkow tribe’s oral histories featured wildfires as a divine avenging force. Had the Konkow not been marginalized, killed and removed from their land, they might have warned the first settlers that Paradise straddled two geological chimneys. The canyons stitched up the sides of the range function like blast furnaces when a fire catches, especially in the months when the Jarbo winds howl west to east. As sparks catch in fuel-filled forests, hot air rises and cooler air rushes in behind it. The resulting vacuum sucks flames up a canyon with shocking speed. People at the top of the ridge are in the greatest danger. As one woman told a reporter: “There’s no way out. You’re trapped.” One of the many costs of the genocide of Indigenous people is the loss of their knowledge about the land that Europeans commandeered. Before colonization, up to 19 percent of California burned annually; fire arrived seasonally in the dry hills much like blizzards bury Buffalo.

But it didn’t take knowledge of deep history to understand that Paradise sat atop a tinderbox. In 2001, the Poe Fire took out 26 houses in and around the town. Seven years later the Humboldt Fire leveled 87 homes. After only a week’s reprieve, lightning started another fire that seared 60,000 acres and burned 200 homes. Yet it took seven years for city leaders to formalize an evacuation plan. The 2018 Camp Fire proved how flawed that plan was.

In the first quarter of the book, Johnson serves up a collective biography of the mostly working-class white people who lived in Paradise and loved their town. Johnson, a staff writer at The Washington Post who previously worked at the San Francisco Chronicle, guides readers into kitchens and playrooms, hospital wards, messy divorces, addiction problems, and paychecks that never seem to pay enough.

Writers seek intimacy to get readers to care about their subjects when disaster strikes. That tactic works here, yet it does more. Johnson’s kaleidoscope of biographical snapshots creates a 21st-century version of Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 novel, “Winesburg, Ohio,” which describes middle America with all its contradictions. Butte County, where Paradise is located, marginally voted for Donald Trump in 2016. Joe Biden barely won in 2020. In Paradise, families are pressed with precarious working arrangements, expensive insurance, minimal health care and, increasingly, catastrophic weather events caused by climate change brushing up against aging, frail infrastructure.

The Camp Fire ignited in November 2018 near an old electrical transmission tower. An iron hook bought in 1919 that had scraped against its grommet for a full century finally snapped. It released a high-voltage cable that toppled to the sunburned ground, where only a few inches of rain had fallen that year. In the past, wildfires took days or weeks to travel a dozen miles. This fire was different. Gale-force winds combusted the commercially planted forests. Many trees were already dead from a massive blight of mountain pine beetles, which prey on drought-weakened timber.

With plenty of fuel and oxygen, the Camp Fire leaped in just four hours from the transmission tower 10 miles to Paradise. There, many of the 26,500 residents jumped into cars that quickly packed the few roads to safety. Couples with two cars went separately. Elderly people without cars were stranded at home. Many people lingered to stuff belongings into SUVs. They joined a titanic traffic jam. When flames licked bumpers, people abandoned their vehicles and started walking. Smoke choked their lungs. Embers burned holes in their clothing. A woman crawled under her car to inhale air from her tires. Eighty-five people died in the inferno. Only a few buildings in the city survived.

After an investigation found Pacific Gas & Electric responsible for the Camp Fire, the company pleaded guilty. Since Reagan-era deregulation, the handsomely compensated executives had drastically cut back on inspecting and repairing power lines. Despite PG&E’s acknowledgment, Johnson determined that a host of factors manufactured the disaster – year after year of record-breaking temperatures, a decade of drought, lightly regulated development that reached into wilderness, mono-crop timber plantations that dry out faster and are sicker than biodiverse forests. These factors were compounded by the mountain of combustible liquids and objects that power modern life: cars, gas stations, propane tanks, building materials. In 2020, lightning ignited a new blaze that again drove through Butte County. Sean Norman, a fire battalion chief, told Johnson after that episode: “I’m just tired. I’m tired of seeing dead animals. I’m tired of seeing dead people. I’m tired of seeing destroyed communities.”

By 2019, only a few thousand residents had returned to Paradise to live. The rest had scattered to other parts of California, to Washington and Oregon and abroad – wherever they could find affordable housing and safety. They were not alone. In 2018, natural disasters displaced 1.2 million Americans.

The displaced Americans are like the Alaskan caribou and polar bears pushed into ever-smaller habitats. People and animals out of place cause new ecological problems. In 2020, the world went into quarantine because – as many health experts believe – bats in China were flushed from deforested zones into places where humans live. They brought with them the novel coronavirus. The warming globe is like a house on fire in which people sit and calmly play cards. When the walls come down around us, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Kate Brown is a professor of science, technology and society at MIT. She is the author of “Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.