The Impact of the Camp Fire on a New Book

As the Camp Fire raged near my hometown, I was thousands of miles away from home. Having just moved to Berlin one month earlier, the day was cold and dark. It was windy and hot in California’s Butte County. An early morning spark ignited the fear that pervades the area: a blaze began shortly after 6:45 a.m.

Wildfires had always posed an existential threat to me during the summer months where I’d lived my whole life in Northern California. It had been weeks since I had seen a few pass through Butte Creek Canyon, where I grew up, slowly burning the ridges before simmering to a halt. Climate change-and in this case, the negligence of Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), the company that supplies the majority of the state with electricity-has been creating wildfires that are hotter, bigger, faster, later in the year, and less predictable than ever before.

However, the power was left on in Butte County after PG&E abruptly turned it off on November 8, despite being supposed to do so. I grew up on the ridge just above the canyon, near the town of Paradise, which was engulfed in flames after a transmission tower failed in the Feather River Canyon. As the chaos unfolded, I opened my laptop to gauge the threat to my home in Berlin. As traffic choked the Skyway, people’s cars burned as they tried to flee from Paradise. Several videos show vehicles engulfed in flames and civilians fleeing by foot. Several people are reported to have been trapped in their homes, and many did not escape their cars before they caught fire. Fire spread into the canyon not long afterward.

Neither my sister’s home, nor the majority of houses in the Butte Creek Canyon area, had burned down, but the house where I was raised miraculously remained standing. Although it took weeks for the full scope of the disaster to be known, by the end of November, 85 people were dead, 18,804 structures were destroyed, and Paradise was gone. California would soon be known for the most destructive wildfire in its history, the Camp Fire.

The stories of those who survived the Butte County blaze and those who did not have to leave were told by news crews for months after the blaze. Nevertheless, I felt like I couldn’t fully understand what happened because I was so far away. I knew what haunted me, but I didn’t know what haunted me. My eyes were opened to the horror of firefighting by Lizzie Johnson’s Paradise: One Town’s Struggle to Survive a Wildfire.

It presents a minute-by-minute description of the Camp Fire, combined with stories from residents and first responders, as well as the environmental conditions, urban planning mistakes, and corporate negligence that caused the blaze to happen. Having read its pages, I came to the paradoxical conclusion that the fire wrought such devastation was entirely avoidable, yet we are doomed to see it repeated time and time again, rather than being able to prevent it.

(Photo: Courtesy Penguin Random House)

Captain Matt McKenzie of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) wakes up to the sound of “ponderosa pine needles [dropping] like the rainfall that refused to arrive” at fire station 36 in the Feather River Canyon. When word of a neighbouring fire pings his phone an hour later, he’s compelled to forsake the meal he’s preparing for his workers. From there, we witness in slow motion as the fire erupts, spreading an acre per second and sweeping through Concow, where people only discovered the fire when flames licked their homes, before crashing into Paradise.

Johnson takes us through the turmoil as first responders try to quantify the speed and threat of the fire, which moved at a rate that no one could comprehend. Officials in the city hold off on issuing evacuation orders because they are unaware of the enormity of the impending calamity. We can see how vulnerable Paradise was: because the town is perched atop a ridge with only a few exits, it was impossible to evacuate all of the almost 27,000 residents at once.

In the end, it didn’t matter how they timed the instructions because the emergency alert system failed to deliver an evacuation notice to 80 percent of Paradise residents before it was too late due to a technological glitch and a low registration rate. As the flames approached the town, smoke turned the sky a “bruised navy, then black” before a “shower of embers” that fell from the sky like “millions of lighted matches flutter[ing] from the skies” started hundreds of spot fires. The occupants were well aware that it was time to escape.

The majority of the storey takes place during a firestorm. Paradise delves so deeply into the experiences of every character that we see the fire through their eyes, feeling the weight of their every decision, every close call. Packed with so much suspense and detail that it sometimes reads like fiction, Paradise delves so deeply into the experiences of every character that we see the fire through their eyes, feeling the weight of their every decision, every close call. As flames engulfed Rachelle, who was cradling her hours-old baby in the back of a stranger’s car, my heart hammered. Tammy, a nurse at Feather River Hospital’s Birth Day Place (the labour and delivery facility where my niece was born a year ago), contacted her family to repent for past mistakes and say farewell, not knowing if she would make it out alive. When Travis witnessed his pals get swept screaming into the flames, or when police-department dispatcher Bowersox listened as elderly neighbours trapped in their homes pleaded for aid, knowing no one was on the way to save them, I had to put the book down numerous times to recover my breath.

The details of these testimonies are gruesome enough on their own. However, Johnson’s ability to totally immerse us in the life of each character makes them almost unpleasant. We don’t just start up with the characters in the middle of the flames; we learn their full past (sometimes in excruciating detail), including how they came to be in Paradise and why they loved it. Kevin McKay, a beloved Paradise Unified School District bus driver, migrated to the hamlet from Santa Cruz, California, when he was 12 years old. After growing up and buying a home in Magalia, a tiny town north of Paradise, he went to school and got a job driving the school bus, which allowed him the time he needed to study. During the Camp Fire, McKay leads a busload of kids through the flames, instructing the two teachers on board to prepare a manifest of everyone’s names in case they didn’t make it.

These backstories create a closeness that makes each escape feel unique. That is the true achievement of Johnson’s thorough account: she humanises a catastrophe that is otherwise impossible to comprehend—even for those of us, like me, who already knew how personal the tragedy was.

We see the fire through their eyes, feel the weight of their every decision, every close call in Paradise because it goes so deeply into the lives of each character.

This humanization continues after the event. After seeing all of the protagonists escape the flames, Johnson leads us to the reckoning, where we learn that, while climate change, poor infrastructure, and faulty emergency systems all had a role, PG&E bears the primary responsibility. A single hook built in 1920 and thereafter ignored on a transmission tower that failed caused the fire. Repairing it would have cost only $19. During the court proceedings against PG&E, Johnson recalls Butte County district attorney Mike Ramsey declaring, “It was the hook that snatched the lives, the hopes, the dreams, the health, the sanity, the wealth, the happiness of a people.” “However, there is a concern etched into the very soul of this community: What will happen next? Is this going to happen again?”

Those inquiries have already been addressed. Wildfires have erupted across the West since the Camp Fire, destroying more towns. The North Complex Fire raged through California’s Butte, Plumas, and Yuba Counties in August 2020, killing 16 people and destroying Bery Creek and Feather Falls. As of press time, Butte County was engulfed in smoke from the Dixie Fire, which erupted barely 10 miles from the Camp Fire’s ignition location and is now the state’s largest single wildfire. Again, it appears like PG&E is at blame, and a number of tiny villages are in jeopardy.

It’s difficult to end on a hopeful note in this environment, and Johnson doesn’t attempt. She, like everyone else, recognises that the solution to the swelling problem is everything but obvious. However, before the epilogue, Johnson brings the storey to a close with an Indigenous legend from Butte County’s Konkow tribe, which she weaves poignantly throughout the novel. According to tradition, a wildfire as devastating as the Camp Fire kills the bulk of the tribe and displaces the remaining, causing them to travel for decades before returning home triumphantly.

The citizens of Paradise today haven’t been as fortunate. Only 2,034 people out of the town’s 26,500 people returned to the ridge. Houses are being erected as swiftly as possible, but it appears that for every person who promises to return, there is another who swears they will never return. The fire’s memories are still too fresh, or the cost of construction materials is too high, or the insurance money is still outstanding. More importantly, the paradise they once knew is vanished. The annual Johnny Appleseed Day celebration, the weekly football games at Om Wraith Field with people crammed into the bleachers, and the tens of thousands of American flags that lined the Skyway on Memorial Day “Balmy summer afternoons at the drive-in movie theatre, a mattress tossed in the truck bed,” and “the air that smelled like heaven after the first winter rain or the first warm day of summer” are also gone.

These memories have been saved for the time being. This book is more than a portrayal of devastation; it is also a tiny act of restoration. Although Paradise will never be the same, Johnson nails its pre-fire charms with such compassion that reading it may feel like coming home for some.

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