Thousands of Californians have fled their homes this week, as the Caldor, Dixie, and other fires continue to blaze across the state. Despite the best efforts of firefighting teams, the Dixie Fire already torched the small mountain town of Greenville in early August, robbing many residents of a home to which to return.
The exodus sparked by each blaze has become an eerily familiar scene as fire seasons in the Western US grow more intense with climate change. Each community that loses part or all of itself brings to mind the carnage left behind by the Camp Fire in 2018. That’s when Paradise, California, was nearly wiped off the map, and surrounding communities suffered similar losses.
Journalist Lizzie Johnson chronicled much of the damage for the San Francisco Chronicle and Washington Post and just wrote a powerful book about Paradise and the people who made a home there. The Verge spoke with Johnson about her new book, Paradise, and what lessons it might offer as fire season rages again.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Before writing this book, you covered Paradise extensively as a reporter. What do you hope people learn about Paradise that they haven’t heard in the news?
That fire just changed a lot of things in the state of California and across the West. All of a sudden, we really saw what’s going to be lost, and it was just too big for a newspaper article alone. That was the point when I realized this was something that was really worthy of a book because Paradise is worth being remembered. It’s worth understanding what happened to that town as we’re facing more and more fires like it in the future, and in the present.
My focus has always been on understanding what climate change feels like and what the human experience is when your community is totally changed from one of these disasters. What I’m hoping people get from this book is just a sense of what the town was, so it’s not just another abstract disaster. That they really understood its traditions and its culture, and the people that live there and their daily routines.
I really appreciated that you included a story from the Konkow tribe about a wildfire that grew out of control generations ago. Why did you weave that through your narrative, and what does it tell us?
I heard the Konkow legend when I was on a tour with the Butte County Fire Safe Council, a few months after the Camp Fire. And we were standing on this plateau overlooking the community of Concow and everything was still burnt to a crisp. All the trees were blackened matchsticks, and there was ash all over the ground. This couple shared this legend about a fire that was really similar to what we had just seen with the Camp Fire. I think, for a lot of people in that group, it was their first time hearing it. It’s that sort of prehistory that doesn’t get included in lesson plans in school so often, and I just was really struck by it.
There’s this whole body of knowledge that was lost when white settlers came over and stomped fire out of the landscape. I think that a lot of people sort of forgot that fire is a very natural part. There’s a lot we can learn from Indigenous groups. So I really wanted to make sure they were represented in the book.
Turning to the Camp Fire, can you walk me through what you have learned about what went wrong that led to so much devastation?
People always want to know the one thing that you can point your finger at. The issue with that is that it’s very, very complicated. It’s a bunch of factors playing at once, which is why it’s hard to find solutions. But basically, the combination of an electrical grid that hasn’t been hardened, that grid is on really flammable land, a lot of forests that are diseased and overgrown and dying that haven’t been managed properly. And then you have these communities like Paradise that are tucked really deep in the forest on fire-prone land, and the houses weren’t built to code.
People use that phrase, perfect storm, but it really was. It was really dry that day, the rains hadn’t come. There was this town in the forest that probably shouldn’t have been there. So when the fire ignited, I mean, it was gone in a matter of hours. It was just insane.
It is difficult to find solutions, but what for you are the key takeaways when it comes to how to prevent something like this from happening again as the climate crisis makes fire seasons more intense?
The point that I keep coming back to is we need to make sure that we’re having the same conversation, where it’s not just arguing about whether climate change is real or not, but understanding that it is here. And it is changing the landscape in ways that are pretty unfathomable compared to what we knew a few decades ago. You can’t start having solutions unless you’re actually having a conversation about the actual problems, right?
The other thing, too, I think, is just realizing that personal preparedness is a really big piece of it. A lot of people see firefighters as these heroes that will come in and rescue them. And when disasters like this happen, at a certain point, they can’t help you. Acknowledging the risk, again, being on the same page, having the same conversation, and realizing that a fire will likely happen if you live in a fire-prone place, and you need to know how to get out and have your go-bag. That’s the kind of thing that might save your life.
My role as a journalist is to just hold a mirror up to the problem. I wish I had more solutions. But all I can really say is, I think that we need to start being more proactive instead of reactive in terms of preparing for these fires and communities understanding their risk. Even reading about Paradise and understanding what happens there better will help places have conversations about what they can do to improve. You can’t just sit back and think that it won’t happen to our town or that things will get better because that’s just not the trajectory that we’re on.
So how are the people you wrote about doing now?
You know, it’s hard. I think that a lot of people assume that recovery is this linear thing. And it’s not. There are a lot of people that aren’t that much better off than they were in the year after the fire, particularly now because there’s smoke in the sky. And, you know, the Dixie Fire is burning and the Caldor Fire is burning, and it’s really really triggering to see other places burn down.
Jamie and Erin in the book with their daughters just finished rebuilding their home. But even they have talked about how the sky is smoky, and they’re just used to breathing smoke now and how hard that is. Rachelle lost her husband to cancer. So she’s a single mom raising their little baby now. Kevin is student teaching. So again, it’s progress. But it’s not as cheery and linear as you think it would be almost three years after this fire.
What is it like for you now seeing things unfold in Northern California this fire season?
It makes me feel really sick to my stomach, to be honest. I was watching videos of the evacuation from South Lake Tahoe yesterday. And again, it just looks so much like what we saw in Paradise and in Butte County during the Camp Fire. There’s this sense that when really, really bad things happen, that you want to feel like there is something to be learned from it, and that it won’t happen again. Even if you intellectually know at some point, another town is going to burn down, it doesn’t make it any easier when it does, having seen up close what that is like and how people struggle afterward. There’s another town that just joined the ranks of destroyed places and where is going to burn down next?
That scene seems to repeat itself summer after summer, right? You see the town and then the next time you see it, everything is in ruins. It’s smoking and people are digging through the ashes looking for their china or their wedding rings. And it’s like, how many times can you see people go through that before something changes in a big way?