Remember coronavirus is not the only natural killer — western wildfires of summer

‘Fire in Paradise’ Review: Fanning the Flames

It was one of the few California towns with a decent evacuation plan. But no one envisioned they’d have to evacuate everyone at once.

A home burns in Paradise, Calif., during the Camp Fire on Nov. 8, 2018.PHOTO: JUSTIN SULLIVAN/GETTY IMAGES

By Gregory Crouch May 11, 2020 6:13 pm EDT

In California, Paradise was a place, a bucolic town sprawled across a ridge in the foothills of the northern Sierra, where people looking for a quiet, affordable existence went to live. Their wishes held true until early November 2018, when the town was annihilated by the deadliest fire in California history.

The calamity, its causes and its aftermath are recounted in “Fire in Paradise: An American Tragedy” by Alastair Gee and Dani Anguiano, two journalists who covered the disaster for the Guardian. Mr. Gee and Ms. Anguiano weave dozens of harrowing and heart-rending survivor accounts and expert opinions into a crisp, intimate portrait of the catastrophe.

Thanks to the region’s annual cycle of wet winters and arid summers, most of California’s ecosystems incorporate wildfires into their natural rhythms. Historically, wildfires have facilitated the germination of many California plants and prevented the overgrowth of vegetation, but recent conditions have deviated far from the historical norm. A century of misguided fire suppression allowed the state’s forests and chaparrals to grow far too dense—providing a superabundance of wildfire fuel. A changing climate now extends California’s dry season further into the fall months, when high winds afflict the state. This combination has exposed much of modern California to some of the most savage infernos known to history.

As the authors write, an abnormally long dry season in 2018 left the countryside “desiccated” and “as dry as tinder.” It began with below-average rainfall during the 2017-18 rainy season and extended, with little respite, through the first week of November 2018. On the night of Nov. 7-8, the dominant west winds reversed, pouring out of the Great Basin to the east and raging over the Sierra Nevada. “Gusts upwards of 50 mph,” we are told, “swept down over the foothills.”

PHOTO: WSJ

FIRE IN PARADISE

By Alastair Gee and Dani Anguiano
Norton, 244 pages, $26.95

Seven miles east of Paradise, a hydroelectric power line owned by the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. ran through a rugged canyon. A series of towers, each almost a century old, held the line aloft. Shortly after 6 a.m., a powerful wind broke a hook high up on an arm of one tower. A live wire fell. PG&E experienced a power outage on the line at 6:15 a.m. Thirteen minutes later, a supervisor “saw a fire that he estimated to measure 100 square feet in a clearing below the transmission line.” Fire Chief Matt McKenzie and his small crew approached the scene in another quarter of an hour, but realized the fire was on the far side of the canyon, separated by an impassible river. His team couldn’t get closer to the flames without a precarious 40-minute detour. To Mr. McKenzie, a 20-year veteran of the state’s firefighting agency, the burgeoning conflagration looked like “a fire with enormous potential.”

Fierce, gusty winds whipped the fire into an uncontrollable beast and sent it straight toward Paradise. Satellites clocked the fiery monster at speeds of up to 21 miles an hour, “faster than the previously posited maximum for wildfire spread.”

Paradise sent its first automated alert at 7:57 a.m. Five minutes later, officials “ordered the mandatory evacuation of the entire town.” Fewer than half of Paradise’s 27,000 inhabitants, however, had opted into the town’s alert network, and in the town’s eastern neighborhoods—the ones first hit by the fire—more than half of those alerts failed. Many residents’ first notification came as the fire itself charged into their area. Although the authors credit Paradise as one of the “surprisingly few” California towns with “a decent evacuation plan,” no one had envisioned a scenario in which they’d have to evacuate the entire town simultaneously.

Chaos ensued. Traffic and flames overwhelmed the town’s primary evacuation arteries. Flames tore through lines of immobilized cars. People fled on foot. Firefighters, police officers, public servants and members of the general public all made heroic attempts to save their fellow citizens. Joe Kennedy, a bulldozer operator for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, helped two nurses fleeing the town hospital into his cab. Fires burned through dozens of “seemingly abandoned vehicles” that blocked their escape. Inside several, he could see “what appeared to be the burned bodies of people who had not been able to get out in time.” He steeled himself and rammed the cars aside with the blade of his bulldozer.

By 10 a.m., less than four hours after ignition, the fire had consumed more than nine square miles. The front of the main fire rampaged across the thoroughfare running through the center of Paradise. Meanwhile, “the death toll was starting to mount.” Most escaped. Many did not. Some time that night, Paradise, Calif., ceased to exist.

By the time a rainstorm finally extinguished the blaze 17 days later, the fire had killed 85 people, incinerated more than 200 square miles and destroyed upward of 14,000 homes. Blame for the disaster quickly descended upon PG&E. As the federal judge overseeing the utility’s probation stemming from a 2010 wildfire pointed out, PG&E had paid $4.5 billion worth of dividends to its stockholders during the five years prior to the Paradise fire rather than prioritize badly needed and long-deferred maintenance.

California’s governor at the time, Jerry Brown, warned earlier in 2018 that such horrendous wildfires are part of California’s “new normal.” Mr. Gee and Ms. Anguiano cite three fire researchers who fear that Mr. Brown understated the crisis. The researchers consider it “a mistake to assume that the region has reached any semblance of a stable plateau.” In their opinion, the deadly combination of climate change and overgrown ecosystems has pushed California into a new “era of megafires,” one that will only get worse.

Mr. Crouch is the author, most recently, of “The Bonanza King: John Mackay and the Battle Over the Greatest Riches in the American West.”

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