"Fire In Paradise: An American Tragedy" | WAMC

"Fire In Paradise: An American Tragedy"

May 29, 2020

Joe Donahue: People prepared for the worst, but they didn't always comprehend how awful the worst could be. The campfire in November 2018, was the deadliest wildfire in America in a century, and the deadliest ever recorded in California history. It burned the town of Paradise, home to 27,000 to the ground, and it was a harbinger of fires to come. In the new book “Fire in Paradise: An American Tragedy”, reporters Alastair Gee and Dani Anguiano of The Guardian tell the story of the destruction wrought by the campfire, creating an account of how the fire happened and why fires like it will happen again. The name of the book is “Fire in Paradise“. 

It's published by Norton and we welcome Alastair Gee and Dani Anguiano to the Roundtable this morning. Thank you both for being with us. A great pleasure.

Gee: Thank you for having us.

Very nice to have you. Did I get your names right?

Anguiano: Yeah.

Okay, there you go. What brought you Alastair to this subject initially, of wanting to, in doing the reporting and then ultimately wanting to tell the story in a book form?

Gee: Well, I had lived in California for 10 years and wildfires are just a fact a fact of life in California, in the same way that rain and monsoons or hurricanes are a fact of life in other parts of the world. Wildfires come regularly to California. But this fire was unlike any other fire that we had seen before. And the morning of the fire, which was pretty much exactly 18 months ago, we woke up. And my colleague Dani starts receiving texts and phone calls from her relatives who live up in the Paradise area, which is in Northern California in a beautiful mountainous area, part of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. And immediately Dani asked to be dispatched up to that area to cover the story for The Guardian. She did, I edited some of Dani's early stories and then we started collaborating and it quickly became clear to us that this fire was just off the charts, off the charts. And, you know, ultimately it would prove to be the deadliest wildfire in the US in 100 years.

So give us a sense, Dani of at that point when you realize that this wasn't, because you say in the book that it can be difficult to grasp that in California, fire is as natural and necessary as the rain or wind. So at what point did you realize, okay, this is this is something different.

Anguiano: You know, actually pretty early on. So I knew that this area, this part of California in particular was especially vulnerable to wildfires. In fact, when I moved to the area, it was in 2008, it was experiencing some of the worst wildfires it had. But when I started seeing reports that a fire was moving so fast that people couldn't escape, that people were stuck in town, you know, at the Savemart, at the police station, and they couldn't even leave because of the fire passing through, I thought to myself, this is going to be really bad. And that's ultimately, you know, it led me to tell my coworkers in The Guardian that I need to go cover this, this is going to be especially deadly. And of course it went beyond even what I had imagined, you know, with, with 85 people dead at the end of the night.

That's a really great point. And Alastair, I'm interested in, in what you learn. There is the day to day reporting, of course, but looking at this situation with a little bit of hindsight now, where does it rank? And what do we ultimately know about the overall devastation of the campfire?

Gee: So it's, in terms of ranking, I mean, it's, you know, it has the unfortunate honor of being the top of the ranking. It's the deadliest ever wildfire in California that we know of. And I think what we are realizing now is that with the with the climate crisis, you know, California has had its four warmest years on record in the 2010s and it saw some incredible fires. I mean, just a couple months before the fire in Paradise there was, this sounds crazy, but there was a fire tornado in a nearby town. It was 1000 feet wide. It tore through various neighborhoods. You know, also is in that general time period, California saw its largest by area ever fire on record. And so I think what we're seeing now is, we're in an era of what scientists called mega fires, fires of just unbelievable proportion and the reason that they are becoming more lengthy and there are lots of reasons but largely, the climate crisis is one. Another factor is that the way that we've managed forests in the western US has led to various issues. So, you know, in the past century, we’ve been so good at putting out forest fires, we develop this whole paramilitary, very heroic firefighting force. And actually, the forests are now more dense and tangled than they should be, you know, previously, five would have burned off some of that brush. So now you've got this, like, just mix of different factors. And the final fact you throw into all of it is that people want to live in these places, so beautiful. They're just, you know, they're gorgeous. And they're often more affordable than the coastal cities, like Los Angeles or San Francisco. And so, you know, you've just got all the ingredients for disaster.

Dani, give us a sense of Paradise, a little bit about the history of this place.

Anguiano: Sure, so you know, Paradise as of November 2018, and before it was a town of about 26 to 27,000 people in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the beautiful town in the trees. And, you know, originally, the area was largely settled by the non indigenous around the Gold Rush, you know, people were drawn to California into that area for that. And it kind of developed out of that. They had their own history there with the indigenous people who were, you know, eventually sort of cast out from the area. And then it develops, I would say, like any other small suburban town in America. And, you know, there was a lot of gatherings around high school football games and that sort of thing. But also, I think what made it unique was this real appreciation for the natural beauty, and wanting to preserve that, and that was such a big part of people's lives. If you ask people in that area, what their favorite things to do, it would be, you know, to hike, to go down to the river to go up to the high lakes, you know, things that are just all about nature.

Give us an idea, Alastair about the fire history of this area prior to this to this huge fire.

Gee: There had been a number of fires in that very area. I mean people just in in 2008, there was a particularly severe fire that came right to the edge of town. And what's interesting is, if you read news reports from that time is people in the local newspaper was saying, you know, we dodged a bullet this time, what if the fire actually got into town? What if, you know, it blocked roads? What if people couldn't escape? And so, you know, the town is very conscious that they were at risk and they developed a lot of systems that they thought would help them to dodge the risk. They had an evacuation plan. They had a whole robo-call set up to warn you as the fire was coming. They had fire rehearsal, fire evacuation rehearsal. So you know, these people knew they lived in a dangerous area. They were very conscious of the risks and there was a lot of preparation for it. I just think that you know the fire that came on November 8, when his approach town you know on the on the way to where it sparked it was moving at speeds down he said that people thought fire couldn't move. It was eating as much as 400 football fields’ worth of vegetation a minute, just chewing through the countryside, steaming towards Paradise. So you know the fire, the town was prepared, it had a history of fire but it just didn't expect that severity of fire.

A large part of this story is Pacific Gas and Electric otherwise known as PG&E. Dani tell us about the rise of PG&E in this region and 125,000 miles of power lines that that really for want of a better term fuel this, fuel the story in some way.

Anguiano:  Sure, even PG&E’s story is very much a California story. Its development matches the development in these rural places. And it is really, you know, it's one of a few power providers in California, but I think it's the one that comes to mind because it provides power to so many Californians. And PG&E has so so many miles of power lines to maintain, and gradually over the years, what we've seen is that these power lines have been linked to these fires, and it's not just the power lines, you know. PG&E has sort of a troubled history. You look at things like you know, the water pollution in Hinkley. That was the subject of the movie, Erin Brockovich, and then you look at the gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno in 2010, that killed that was about 13 people, and PG&E in recent years has just become such a troubled company. And when this fire started, there was talk that perhaps it was PG&E because they reported an outage on one of their lines and it turned out that that is what happened that there was a very old piece of equipment on a PG&E power line that needed to be replaced, you know, decades ago it wasn't, and that's ultimately what started that fire that destroyed Paradise.

What do we know now as far as the status of the, the company and what they're doing in in the wake of these fires and the devastation that we saw in November of 2018?

Anguiano:  Sure, well, you know, since then PG&E has just really been in in the public eye, you know, people are demanding answers are saying you, essentially, you killed 85 people, what are you going to do to change? And what we've seen from that is, you know, PG&E declared bankruptcy. They are working to come out that and meet certain state requirements, and they promise that they're going to be a different company, that this won't happen again. They're supposed to come out of bankruptcy later this year. You know, started to settle with victims. But what they've also said is that they don't believe they can stop fires from starting. They say with this new reality we're facing in the climate crisis that there will be fires. It’s unavoidable, they say, with thousands of miles of power lines they have, and the aging infrastructure that badly needs to be replaced, but it will take time to replace.

When we're talking about the story, Alastair, of course, a great part of the book is this amazing account of the evacuation. And I'm hoping you can share a little bit about what that evacuation was like and how precise it was, and really how incredible it was.

Gee: Yeah, exactly. Well, to set to set the scene, I mean, disaster experts say that there is no city in the US that is prepared to evacuate all of its residents at exactly the same time and do it in a way that gets everyone out safely and quickly. It's just impossible. We don't build roads wide enough for it. This isn't the infrastructure. And so Paradise is in this situation where all of a sudden, the entire town of 30,000, people had to evacuate on roads that simply weren't built for it. And so what you had at the same time as this fire was barreling into town, torching buildings, and trees and cars. you had incredible gridlock on the roads of people just inching forward with you know, the whole world seemingly on fire on all sides of the road, in the sky above them. And you know, not only did this kill people but you had firefighters you know, eventually telling people get out of their cars, corralling them into intersections. And, you know, defending them with fire hoses as the fire raged all around. You had people you know, you had cops breaking into conveniences stores and gas stations in shepherding people inside to try and protect them. And you know, one of the awful tragedies that we found is that because the fire moves so quickly and so many people were unaware of there being disabled people, elderly people, people knew that their relatives or friends were trapped, but because of the traffic they just could not get to them. And so there were just devastating stories of people you know, people were on the phone to their mother or their friends saying, please get out, please get out and the person saying, well I can’t you know, everything's on fire, this traffic stop moving. I can't I can't move. What am I gonna do? And so, you know, a lot of the really terrible stories were people were simply trapped.

Let me direct this question to both of you and we'll start with you, Alastair, which is given that Paradise will never again be what it was, what lessons do you think we have learned in this rather short period of time, and the lessons that we've learned and the lessons that we haven't learned?

Gee: I think what we've learned is that this can happen again. And I think that so many of the people that I spoke to, from firefighters, to officials, to just ordinary residents of the town, all of a sudden, their idea of what is possible, is suddenly expanded. And so you know, I spoke to a firefighter who lived in a town similar to Paradise, but 100 miles away. And when I met him after his incredibly heroic rescue of so many people in Paradise, he told me, I think this can happen in my town, I think it will happen in my town. And so I think, you know, one of the best things you can say that has come out of this fire is that it's just awakened people to the fact that so many people in the western US now are vulnerable to these new kinds of very deadly wildfires, and so you know, there's a lot more focus now on we can’t prevent this, it’s going to come through, how do we survive this? What do we need? Do we need, for instance, to have shelter in place areas where instead of trying to get everyone out of town at once, we created a safe area that may be just a sea of asphalt, which is not flammable, where people can gather, if a fire comes through. So it's really I think, shifting perceptions around what was always previously thought the impossible.

And, Dani, what would you like to add to that?

Anguiano:  Um, I mean, I'll echo some of that. I think that one of the sort of more positive things is that there's a real awareness that this can happen again. You know, this came after a very deadly fire season in 2017, in which 44 people died in the North Bay Area. And I think people kind of hoped it was maybe a fluke or a one off, and what we've seen is that no, this can happen again and you know, by all indicators it probably will. My one worry is that people look at what happened in Paradise and say, okay, well don't build there. And it's just it's just not a solution. I think it kind of ignores the fact that people were drawn to Paradise because it was affordable. The cost of living in California is very high. And it seems to get more expensive every year. So when we say things like, well don't build there, we ignore the people who were there because it's what they could afford.

Right. Well, the book is, is just fascinating. It's fire in “Fire in Paradise: An American Tragedy.” Alastair Gee and Dani Anguiano. I thank you both for being with us this morning. And for the amazing reporting. I so appreciate it.

Thank you so much.

Be well thank you very much. Again, the name of the book is “Fire in Paradise: An American Tragedy”. The book is published by Norton, you're listening to the Roundtable on WAMC.