In Paradise, a community lost to the flames

Carolyn Kellogg

THE WASHINGTON POST – Some people knew, but they didn’t know exactly where, or when.

When it arrived, it came on so fast that the preparations the cautious had made weren’t enough. Life as they’d known it was forever changed.

People died: the vulnerable, the valiant, those who were just unlucky.

This is, perhaps, how any tragedy unfolds. It’s what connects our coronavirus fight with Fire in Paradise, a book about a California calamity that speaks to our present moment.

Co-authors Alastair Gee and Dani Anguiano were journalists working for the British newspaper the Guardian in San Francisco when a devastating fire ripped through the Sierra Nevada in 2018.

Gee is a writer and editor from England; Anguiano is a young reporter with family roots in the area.

With one voice, they tell a story that is both sweeping in scope and vivid in its particulars.

Located about 90 miles north of Sacramento, Paradise was a small town that dated to the Gold Rush, settled after the Konkow tribe of Native Americans was removed from its homelands.

By 2018, it was populated by a mix of independent-minded people on both the right and the left who were drawn to its cheap housing and abundant natural beauty.

The authors explain how a combination of global warming and the way we manage forests set the stage for the devastating blaze.

Before Westerners arrived, the native landscape was so adapted to regular burns that some plants’ seeds need fire to germinate; chamise, a native shrub, emits combustible gases in the presence of flames.

But 20th Century forestry practices snuffed out fires immediately, meaning these naturally flammable environments became overgrown.

Global warming left them parched – and the state had just recorded its four hottest years ever, consecutively.

At around 6am on November 8, 2018, at the tail end of what used to be fire season, the Camp Fire sparked and spread.

The blaze was not set off by careless campers; as avid fire-watchers know, wildfires get their names from their location.

First spotted by firefighters in a remote canyon off Camp Creek Road, the Camp Fire was caused by a sparking electrical line owned by Pacific Gas and Electric.

The blaze made unexpected leaps and spread faster than anyone had experienced before.

The town of Paradise had an evacuation plan but only a few narrow roads out, and more people tried to flee at once than anyone had predicted. They were outflanked by flames.

The authors tell the story of the fire’s progress by focussing on a handful of local residents.

They include father and daughter John and Skye Sedwick; Iris Natividad and her partner, Andrew Downer; nurse Chelsea West; and bulldozer operator Joe Kennedy.

John Sedwick, a former volunteer firefighter, sent his daughter ahead and stayed behind to help; Iris was working out of town and called Downer, urging him to leave; West helped evacuate patients, then had to get to safety on foot.

Kennedy sped in to help set fire lines with his huge earth mover and instead wound up rescuing those stranded by the fire.

For those who have seen the Netflix documentary Fire in Paradise, which included cellphone video shot by fleeing residents, some of this will be familiar.

But the authors do what that documentary couldn’t: They paint a picture of the lives of these people and their town before the fire came.

Some liked to evoke the bawdy history of the West, saying the town took its name from a saloon called Pair O’Dice.

“More likely, it came from an appreciation of the area’s natural qualities,” the authors wrote. “Gold did not make the area rich, and it even earned the nickname of Poverty Ridge. Yet as one early settler proclaimed, ‘It’s a nice place to starve if you have to’.”

By the 2000s, the town’s affordability meant it had a high proportion of seniors and people with disabilities, who’d been priced out of much of California.

The Sedwicks lived in a cabin that was more than 100-years-old, a rustic retreat where John’s parents had moved when he was a boy.

Skye moved back in after raising her kids and experiencing health setbacks; she’d taken John to dinner for his 82nd birthday not long before the fire.

Getting to know them and the others in the book gives depth to their losses. One survivor returns to the burned-out location of a house to look at the marks left where a loved one had died, taking strange comfort in it.

In all, the Camp Fire killed 85 people. It burned more than 150,000 acres and destroyed nearly 14,000 homes. The town was all but wiped off the map.

Fire in Paradise follows the survivors out into the world, but there’s a real sense of fracture.

What was once a community is gone – to larger cities, to other states. A few remain, but Paradise will probably never be an affordable haven again.

The mountains are, in some ways, renewed, but the threat of megafires remains.

It happened so fast. One elementary school teacher saw smoke on the way to work, but she’d seen that before.

As the morning grew dark, she distracted her students, then evacuated as police instructed.

The gravity of the situation finally hit her when she stepped outside: “Then I got really scared,” she said.

This turning point happens in disaster narratives over and over again: Everything is normal, and then it’s not.

Those who made it are lucky. But their world will never be the same.