How Paradise Went Up in Flames

How Paradise Went Up in Flames

How Paradise Went Up in Flames

How Paradise Went Up in Flames

An American Tragedy
By Alastair Gee and Dani Anguiano

For people living in Paradise and other towns in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, the morning of Nov. 8, 2018, was full of portents. The sun was a red blur in an eerie, yellow-brown sky, and roadside pines were coated in ash. One man woke to find his lawn covered with burned leaves. A high school student looked up to see a stream of birds flocking en masse out of town. The winds were strong and strange — not gusts, but a “sustained, jet-engine roar,” Alastair Gee and Dani Anguiano write in “Fire in Paradise: An American Tragedy,” their gripping account of the massive blaze that became known as the Camp Fire and which killed 85 people and destroyed 90 percent of residents’ homes.

“Fire in Paradise” grew out of Gee and Anguiano’s reporting on the Camp Fire for The Guardian. Anguiano also had a personal connection to the story; she once lived 20 minutes from Paradise, and her cousin’s house burned down on Nov. 8.

The authors begin their book with a brief history of the region, from its Indigenous communities to its Gold Rush boom to its current role as a refuge for middle- and lower-income people priced out of the rest of California. Gee and Anguiano have a clear affection for the area’s “sun-speckled, dirt-road lifestyle” and its idiosyncratic inhabitants.

The heart of the book, though, is the individual stories of bravery and tragedy that played out in Paradise and its neighboring communities as the Camp Fire raged: Adult children try to persuade stubborn parents to leave town before it’s too late; first responders attempt to make sense of a blaze that seemed to be coming at them from all directions; doctors and nurses scramble to evacuate 67 patients from the Feather River hospital, including a woman who had given birth only hours before. (She and her infant evacuate with the hospital’s maintenance engineer, her IV fluids hanging from his rearview mirror and her catheter bag resting at her feet.)

The horror of the fire’s relentless advance is viscerally evoked, although the details sometimes verge on unbearable. Drivers stuck in traffic as flames encroach watch in horror as their wheel wells and dashboards begin to melt. A panicked woman tells a 911 dispatcher that she doesn’t have a car and she can’t leave with her neighbors because they won’t take her dogs. “Ma’am, you need to save your own life,” the dispatcher tells her. “I understand your dogs are precious to you, but you need to save your own life.”

The authors temper the horror with stories of heroism and rescue. At the last minute, a taciturn bulldozer driver appears out of the smoke, single-handedly saving dozens of lives. Jeff Evans, the owner of a pest control company, remains in Paradise and manages to save the home he shares with his parents. In the weeks after the fire, when evacuees are prohibited from returning to Paradise for safety reasons, his house becomes a de facto shelter for left-behind pets; Evans tends to 11 dogs, four mules, a dozen ducks and a badly burned pig. Still, this is unavoidably a story of devastation and loss.

In the aftermath, new problems arose. Fifty thousand people were evacuated from the Camp Fire. Dozens with nowhere else to go camped out in a Walmart parking lot, surviving on gift cards donated by strangers. Survivors debated whether to return and rebuild in a town whose water system was contaminated by benzene from pipes that had melted in the extreme heat.

It would provide a meager kind of comfort to blame a lack of preparedness for what happened in Paradise — then, at least, we could imagine averting another such disaster. But Gee and Anguiano make clear that Paradise was actually better prepared than many other at-risk communities in the state. The town had a fire evacuation plan and an emergency alert system (albeit one that reached only a fraction of residents) and regularly ran emergency rehearsal drills. But this fire grew too big too quickly; the emergency planners hadn’t imagined that they’d ever have to evacuate the entire town.

It was unnerving, if also perversely captivating, to read this account of the Paradise disaster while in the midst of our current, slower-moving catastrophe. There are uncanny moments of resonance: As smoke from the fire blankets San Francisco, hardware stores run out of N95 masks; schools close, and students complete their coursework online.

“Fire in Paradise” has the narrative propulsion and granular detail of the best breaking-news disaster journalism; while the authors include some historical context, they largely refrain from in-depth analysis or attempts to draw broader conclusions from the tragedy. The main takeaway from their book is sobering: As many parts of the world get hotter and drier, we will likely see more fires as destructive as the one in Paradise.

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