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Paradise: One Town's Struggle to Survive an American Wildfire

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The definitive firsthand account of California's Camp Fire--the nation's deadliest wildfire in a century--and a riveting examination of what went wrong and how to avert future tragedies as the climate crisis unfolds

On November 8, 2018, the people of Paradise, California, awoke to a mottled gray sky and gusty winds. Soon the Camp Fire was upon them, gobbling an acre a second. Less than two hours after it ignited, residents were trapped in flames, cremated in their homes and cars. By the next morning, eighty-five people were dead.

San Francisco Chronicle reporter Lizzie Johnson was there as the town of Paradise burned. She saw the smoldering rubble of a historic covered bridge and the beloved Black Bear Diner, and she stayed long afterward, visiting shelters, hotels, and makeshift camps. Drawing on years of on-the-ground reporting and reams of public records, including 911 calls and testimony from a grand jury investigation, Johnson provides a minute-by-minute account of the Camp Fire, following residents and first responders as they fight to save themselves and their town. We see a young mother fleeing with her newborn; a school bus full of children in search of an escape route; and a group of paramedics, patients, and nurses trapped in a cul-de-sac, fending off the fire with rakes and hoses.

Johnson documents the unfolding tragedy with empathy and nuance. But she also investigates the root causes, from runaway climate change to a deeply flawed alert system to Pacific Gas and Electric's decades-long neglect of critical infrastructure. A cautionary tale for a new era of megafires, Paradise is the gripping story of a town wiped off the map and the determination of its people to rise again.

432 pages, Hardcover

First published August 17, 2021

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About the author

Lizzie Johnson

3 books124 followers
Lizzie Johnson> is a staff writer at the San Francisco Chronicle, where she has reported on fifteen of the deadliest, largest, and most destructive blazes in modern California history, and covered over thirty communities impacted by wildfires. Originally from Nebraska, she lived part-time in Paradise while reporting this book and currently lives in the Bay Area.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 375 reviews
Profile Image for Yun.
521 reviews21.7k followers
July 7, 2021
At 212 degrees Fahrenheit, the water and sap stored in tree trunks began to boil. The trees sweated until--their cell walls bursting--they combusted.
At 6:15 am on November 8, 2018, a spark ignited next to a transmission tower situated near the town of Paradise. Two hours later, the entire town was in flames. What follows is the harrowing tale of the people of this community as they struggled to stay alive in the inferno, then afterwards as they tried to understand what happened and how to move on and rebuild.

I've been hearing about wildfires for years, more so recently than ever before. And living in the Pacific Northwest, we usually get a week or two of bad air blown in from nearby towns and states every year during wildfire season. But reading this book really brought the devastation to life, not just its destruction in terms of size, but also the human toll that it inevitably carries.

The book introduces us to a few folks in the community, including firefighters, medical personnel, a school bus driver, and a new mother, and we follow them as the horror of the fire unfolds. The narrative is vivid and compelling, often reading more like a thriller than a non-fiction book. The scenes laid out, with embers raining down, smoke turning the sky as black as night and choking the air, and the temperature soaring past 100 degrees, captures this small town on the west coast during its apocalypse.

In addition, the book explores the trauma that this experience leaves on its inhabitants and the town itself, as well as implications for its future. It also examines all that went wrong in order for this to have happened, including utility giant Pacific Gas and Electric's negligence in causing the spark that lit the fire, as well as climate change, aging buildings and infrastructure, a malfunctioning alert system, and lack of a coherent evacuation plan.

This was such a skillfully-written account, helping me understand not just what happened with this particular fire in Paradise, but also of wildfires in general. It was gripping and visceral, and it made my heart ache for the people of this town and all who were affected. Unfortunately, wildfires will only get worse from here, so this feels like an essential book for all who want to understand.

My heartfelt thanks for the advance copy that was provided for my honest and unbiased review.
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,309 reviews120k followers
August 18, 2022
The wind slammed against the Harding-era transmission tower, ripping a heavy electrical line from its brittle iron hook. It was 6:15 A.M. The 143-pound, 115-kilovolt braided aluminum wire—known as a jumper cable—fell through the air. A piece of the rusted hook fell with it. The energized line produced a huge bolt of electricity, reaching temperatures up to 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit and zapping the steel tower like lightning as it charred the pillar black. Droplets of molten metal sprayed into the dry grass. That’s all it took.
…this was how the fire spread so quickly: It wasn’t a single unbroken front but a hail of embers.
Welcome to the new normal.

sign - may you find paradise to be all its name implies - Image from KQED

In November 2018, one hundred fifty miles north of San Francisco, the town of Paradise became the epicenter of what would be called The Camp Fire. It was the most destructive wildfire in California history. (The Dixie Fire that was raging at the time this review was prepared had not yet been controlled, so we do not yet know if it was even worse.) The Camp Fire does not even make the top ten list for the most acres destroyed by fire. That dubious honor goes to the August Complex fire of 2020, which burned over a million acres. The Camp Fire destroyed only 153,336 acres. But in other metrics it leads the way. Almost 19,000 structures were destroyed. The property loss was over $10 billion, (I have seen a report indicating that the cost exceeded $16 billion) about 10 percent larger than the 2017 Tubbs Fire, the former title holder. Most importantly, the official death toll from the Camp Fire was 85, an undercount of at least fifty according to the author’s tally of wrongful death suits lodged against PG&E, and her knowledge of deaths that did not fit into the very restrictive official definition. In looking at lists of the worst wildfires ever, concentrated as it is in the last few years, and with no likelihood that conditions will improve any time soon, it is a certainty that we, as a planet, the USA as a nation, and California in particular are living in a powderkeg and giving off sparks.

Lizzy Johnson - Image from her site

Johnson had been the fire reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle prior to the Camp Fire. (She has since moved on to the Washington Post)
…this book is the product of more than five hundred interviews and nearly five years of full-time wildfire coverage. I even enrolled in a professional firefighting academy to better understand fire…It’s the product of coming to love a community that I embedded in: spending hours strolling across Paradise on my evening walks, buying ice cream sandwiches from the Holiday Market, eating more containers of green curry from Sophia’s Thai than I can count. The people whose lives I’ve chronicled in this book offered me unfettered access to their day-to-day lives without any expectations. They were not compensated for their time. - from Acknowledgments

Burned vehicles during Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif. on Thursday, November 8, 2018 - image and text from SF Gate

She even stayed with some of them. Johnson provides a wealth of detail. Not just two dimensional, or even three, but adding time into the mix to make for four. We get personal histories of people who were impacted by the fire, specifically in how they came to be there, and the history of the place from before the 1850 goldrush. This includes some history on the Native American Konkow tribe, with lore that addresses the challenges of coping with wildfire. She also looks at PG&E’s history of poor line maintenance, and the legal system’s history of failing to make them pay for their malfeasance or force them to adequately change their ways.

Timeline – from the National Institute for Standards and Technology

As for the structure of the book, I was reminded of The Longest Day, an epic 1962 war film that told, from a variety of perspectives, the story of the D-Day invasion of Europe in World War II. By knitting the diverse experiences together we get a sense of the overall event that would have been impossible in a more linear Boy-Meets-War type narrative. Paradise is a lot like that. We jump from the desperate bus-driver to the town manager to the maintenance man at the hospital to the pilot trying to dump flame retardant on the blaze, to the people on their off-road vehicles trying to find a location in which to shelter that had no combustible foliage, to the police chief, to the town manager, to the fire chiefs, to a woman who gave birth by Caesarian section that very day, and winds up being driven around by a stranger, trying to find her husband and a way out. and on. But somehow, the book never felt disjointed. Each person is given sufficient detail. We get to know them some, not too much, but enough to care. And we track their progress over that terrible day. I found it helpful while reading to have a browser tab open to a Google map of Paradise so I could follow each person on their fraught peregrinations. Johnson tracks the progress of the fire, from its ignition by the downed power line at 6:15 am on November 8, 2018, step by step. She tracks her residents through that day to where they are now, in August 2020.

Fire tornado explainer - from the San Francisco Chronicle

Johnson’s focus is on the personal. There is a reason for that.
Early in her fire reporting, Johnson noticed that many fire stories—hers included—sounded similar; they often relied on the same beats, the same kinds of quotes, the same tropes. (A woman who left her wedding ring at home, for example, only for it to burn.) Johnson began to wonder if disaster fatigue happened when stories felt predictable. So she changed her approach to make the fire secondary, a “supporting character” in a more surprising and nuanced human story—and readers paid attention. Too often, she said, coverage tries to hit people over the head with a “climate change caused this” moral. “I’m now thinking more like, What does climate change feel like? If we changed the model, maybe people will listen more, and we can do more work with our storytelling. - from the Columbia Journalism Review interview
One can only hope.

The Camp Fire burns in the hills on November 10, 2018 near Big Bend, California. Fueled by high winds and low humidity the Camp Fire ripped through the town of Paradise - image from SF Gate

Simple human error accounts for some of the carnage. A public emergency warning system failed to reach half the residents because it had never been tested locally, and a systems flaw had not been detected. And our old bugaboo of inadequate communication and coordination among the responsible emergency authorities was not helpful. In the larger context, it is the myopic focus on immediate financial or political motives that has created much of this problem. For example, a Code Red system for alerting people of an emergency is privately owned, requiring people to subscribe. Only 11% did.

from the Camp Fire - image from Cal Fire

Maybe, after a four-lane road had been paved on the western edge of town several years before, cutting two lanes from the Skyway, providing extra parking for downtown businesses and removing the “expressway” feel of the road, ignoring pleas that this would be a deadly choice the next time a major fire hit, might, just might have been an incredibly bad, short-term decision with deadly long-term consequences. Someone in Paradise should be nominated for the Larry Vaughn Award for exceptional short-sightedness in the face of mortal peril.

NASA shot of the fire

The experience of reading this book was unlike that of anything else I have read in recent memory. The closest I can think of is Five Days at Memorial, several years back. How quickly, how easily our civilization can be overwhelmed, our safety completely compromised.

Evacuating the hospital - image from The Daily Mail

There were moments when I had to step away from reading, and just breathe, because the specifics of the fire were so upsetting. The stories Johnson tells are heart-wrenching, and often horrifying. It was like reading a real-life end-times, zombie-apocalypse novel. Someone hiding from the flames under a vehicle, pokes a hole in a tire just to get breathable air. After a victim of the fire is lifted from a flat surface, a layer of molten flesh remained. Just writing these words brings a sob.

A Cal Fire pilot maneuver's an S2-T tanker to make a drop on the Walbridge fire at sunset near Healdsburg, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. - Image from the Press Democrat – photo credit Kent Porter – What it would have looked like had planes not been called back due to 70 mph winds and horrific down and updrafts

Another part of the experience was learning new things, many of them dire, like the fact that trees were becoming so hot that the water and sap inside them heated to a point where they basically exploded. Things like the temperature becoming so high that metallic elements in the ground solidified into shards, and propane tanks became missiles and major sources of shrapnel. AT&T’s landlines melted. Internet service cut out as communications hardware on towers was destroyed. Things like the underground pipes carrying the town’s water becoming so hot that they melted, leaching carcinogenic materials into the water supply. (Repair/replace cost $50 million.) Things like the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere from this one fire matched the output of the entire state’s factories and traffic in a week. Things like the incineration of so many structures created clouds of toxic sub-2.5 micron particles that lodge in the lungs of any breathing thing. There are plenty more things to be learned here, not all of them quite so extreme. But all of them worth knowing. She looks at the topography, and how that impacts wind currents, the changes in the local flora, the psychology of disaster response. The scientific explanations in the book were clear and informative

Firefighter Jose Corona monitors a burning home as the Camp Fire burns - image and text from SF Gate

It is easy to engage with the folks Johnson profiles, and root for them to survive. It helps that we can presume that all of the primary actors here make it out, else Johnson would not have been able to interview them, and we would not be reading their stories. But she succeeds in showing us what global warming means on the ground, to actual human beings, over 125 of whom are no longer with us, and many of whom have been scarred, physically and or emotionally, for life.

shot from the fire – image from The Daily Mail

There is very little mention of political party here. Local representation is heavily Republican. Everyone burns at the same temperature, but maybe voting for the party of climate change denial while living in a tinderbox might be seen as somehow ironic, if not feckless and arrogant. Trump popped by for a photo op and a chance to blame Californians for the fire, claiming that they should have been raking out the leaves in the woods. (The largest wildland property owner in California is the federal government, by the way. The state is in charge of about 3% of it.) The town voted for him in 2016, but by 2020 had seen quite enough orange light and switched, at least at the presidential level.

Sheriffs yell to drivers to evacuate the area off of Pentz Road during the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018 - image and text from SF Gate

As this book and countless other reports make clear, we have a wildfire problem. Serious research into the causes, both global and local, has been done. More is ongoing, and there will, for sure, be more ahead. Even more than has already been done, public policies will have to be crafted to encourage, and where possible, mandate best practices, and enforce restrictions on private and public use of land in the wildland-urban interface. There are many facets to this, from power line protection, roadway construction, widening, or even closing, development requirements, such as mandating fire-safe materials for new construction, and supporting retrofitting older buildings. Communications among first responders has been improved, but much remains to be done. Total deregulation, allowing property owners to do whatever they want with their property can very concretely endanger the property and lives of all those around them. We have an obligation to each other to not be totally indifferent about the safety of our communities and neighbors. Common sense regulation should be implemented. In the wider view, gaining new knowledge of areas that are likely to burn should inform policy on where new development is allowed at all, where further development should be halted, and where rebuilding burned areas is ill-advised. ( Between 1970 and 1999, 94 percent of the roughly three thousand houses destroyed by wildfires in California had been rebuilt in the same spot—and often burned down a second or third time.) Your freedom to do whatever the frack you want ends where my charred skin begins. Insurance companies, with the most to lose financially, have already made getting fire insurance tougher, if it is available at all, in fire-prone communities.

Cars escape the Camp Fire as they drive south on Pentz Road in Paradise, California, on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018 - image and text from SF Gate

I love this book. It is among my favorites for the year. I have much praise to offer and very few gripes. While I understand that the author’s intent was to make global warming on-the-street real, and appreciate that she has succeeded in doing just that, I would have liked a bit more on the long-term medical impact of wildfires, and the politics of the local public officials, particularly their views on global warming.

A bulldozer dislodged abandoned vehicles from a blocked roadway after the fire. The scene suggests that a burnover, a dangerous event where fire cuts evacuees off from escape routes, took place. There were at least 19 over the course of the fire. – image and text from National Institute for Standards and Technology

Trade paperback - August 16, 2022

==========In the summer of 2019 GR reduced the allowable review size by 25%, from 20,000 to 15,000 characters. In order to accommodate the text beyond that I have moved it to the comments section directly below. As of August 2021, GR will no longer allow external links in comments, so, if you want to see the entire review in one place please head on over to my site, Coot's Reviews.
Profile Image for JanB .
1,182 reviews2,791 followers
Shelved as 'dnf'
February 25, 2022
DNF @ 20%
I love an occasional non-fiction book and was excited to read this one in the hopes of ending a slump. Unfortunately it wasn’t for me. At over 400 pages there was a lot of filler and I could have learned all I needed to know from an online article.

I received a digital copy of this book from NetGalley. All opinions are my own.

Edited to add: be assured that my dislike of this book and the way it is written in no way reflects on the disaster itself or on the people who were affected and the lives lost. I am entitled to an opinion on a BOOK. Healthy discussion is encouraged, but rude and confrontational comments will be deleted.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews591 followers
September 18, 2021
Lizzie Johnson’s book ‘Paradise’ was nails on a chalkboard irritating …..
with slow rollouts of the ‘heart-of-the-matter’-burning devastation of the horrific camp fire in the town of Paradise…
where every inch burned to the ground…..
people - families - children burned to death ….

Several of my personal friends lost their homes-
I still live with grief.

I didn’t want to read this book -it was much to close to home — much too personal for me.

I was offered to read this book a year ago for-a-review- I said no. I couldn’t do it objectively- no matter what was written. Not ‘for’ a review. I just couldn’t!!!
Many of us- locals-and people though-out the world can’t forget learning of the horrors of people in their cars trying to escape the fire only to be burned alive.

Soooo many emotions — anger - sadness - real grief!!

Lizzie Johnson -bless her compassion-her diligent commitment as a journalist- her heart was in the right place —
but she spent so much time on drawn-out-stories about residents height, weight, hair and eye color, foods cooked, hobbies, family history, marriages, divorces, dating, jobs, income and financial situations, education, personal mental health, and addictions.
I’m the meantime we were ‘on hold’ for the nitty-gritty important facts.
Humanizing a story gives a book soul - but in ‘Paradise’ it became nauseating-peppy.
I was impatient with the glossy biographies.

I can’t say the ‘word’ PARADISE easy
any longer.
Many people who visit our house—[our retreat-yard] - call it ‘a heaven-of-paradise….(sweet and kind)….but….
I replace the word with OASIS.
I pledged long ago to myself, to no longer use the word - paradise - to describe peaceful beauty.
I save the word -only to honor the town we loved and the people who died in it.

The tragic loss - was bigger than tragic- it was a nightmare!!!

PG&E will never live their crime down — many of us will never forget — they ‘are’ paying their debt and things have been corrected. (so at least there is that).

Thanks go to Lizzie Johnson for taking on this project of reporting.
I know she gave her all- gave with her heart—
but this book was a little too ‘safe & careful’ — sweetly syrupy for me.
I cried only during the acknowledgements —I
was moved by all the people mentioned who got their hands dirty - trying to save lives— and sad for those who live with un-talk-able memories.
Thankfully I had a phone call with a blessed friend, instantly as I finished the last couple of sentences
— or I might have fallen into a longer dark spell (again over this fire)…

This was the book I wasn’t going to read!
This was also the book I wasn’t going to mention or review.
Paul encouraged me this evening (before falling asleep)… to write ‘something’ for myself…
And this is it.
I’m typing this entry from our bed - under my covers - onto this iPhone —
This book is not completion — it’s a reminder.

I do thank Lizzie Johnson for her work… her goodness!
And, although this book is not without flaws - our author deserves recognition for all the blood, sweat, research, tears, interviews, hours, weeks, months, and longer, that she gave.

Thank you Cheri (you know why)

3.8 rating
Profile Image for Jennifer ~ TarHeelReader.
2,181 reviews30.5k followers
August 19, 2021
I received a gifted copy from Goodreads and Crown Publishing.

I’m sure we all remember California’s Camp Fire of 2018, the devastating wildfire.

In Paradise, author Lizzie Johnson transports the reader to the time and place it all starts for the local residents. An acre gone in one second flat. Johnson works for the San Francisco Chronicle as a reporter, and she is there in Paradise as the tragedy unfolds.

Her account is minute-by-minute, and the tension is palpable. Johnson doesn’t just report, though. She humanizes the victims and inserts empathy when putting names and lives to the faces of those impacted. She also examines the causes including climate change and a lacking alert system (why can’t this be better in this modern age?).

Paradise surprised me in the best of ways. It begs important discussions and shines an important light on a heartbreaking tragedy.

Many of my reviews can also be found on my blog: www.jennifertarheelreader.com and instagram: www.instagram.com/tarheelreader
Profile Image for Darla.
3,506 reviews614 followers
August 15, 2021
This is a comprehensive account of the Camp Fire and how it affected the town of Paradise, California. Lizzie Johnson does an exceptional job taking us through the events of that unforgettable tragedy. It is clear that she spent extensive amounts of time in Paradise getting to know the people whose lives were irrevocably changed on November 8, 2018. There is a rush to blame climate change for the fires, but the book also brings some other issues to light as well. What about the negligence of PGE in not maintaining their equipment? The line hook that came loose early that day had been overlooked as a part of mandatory maintenance for decades. What about the lack of stewardship of our forested areas. Controlled burns are necessary to nurture and revive the plants and trees that inhabit those spaces. What about the spaces we are choosing to build our homes? Just because we want to live there, should we? Finally, are the wildfires themselves causing climate change to accelerate?

Thank you to Crown Publishing for a DRC in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Sharon Orlopp.
Author 1 book522 followers
September 21, 2022
Lizzie Johnson does a phenomenal, heroic job of on-the-ground investigative reporting to describe the Camp Fire on November 8, 2018 that ravished the town of Paradise, CA where 85 people died.

The book reads at a blitzkrieg pace that makes you feel as if you are personally trying to determine which course of action to take to remain alive.

It was the perfect storm due to many mitigating factors, such as:
* It had been more than seven months without any rain and the winds were gusting strong enough to ground aircraft, set off car alarms, and uproot trees.
* The prior five years had been chart-topping heat.
* Live fuel moisture, a measure of water stored in a manzanita plant was 74%; typically in November it is 93%.
* PG&E, the electricity supplier, had experienced the Erin Brockovich lawsuit where PG&E paid out $333 million, as well as a lawsuit for the Trauner Fire where PG&E had diverted $77.6 million from it's tree trimming budget and put it toward corporate profits. PG&E was convicted of 739 counts of criminal negligence and forced to pay $24 million in fines for the Trauner Fire. A decade later, a cracked natural gas pipeline caused the deaths of 8 people and injured 58. Safety standards were violated and documents were fabricated at PG&E. Their track record regarding safety was abysmal.
* A hook fell from a PG&E tower (Tower 27/222) at 6:15 am on 11/8/2018 and ignited a spark. The tower had not been inspected since 2001---17 years had passed. PG&E rules indicated towers should have a detailed inspection every 5 years.
* Communication systems and warnings failed/didn't occur timely.
* Paradise City Council had approved reducing the main road in and out of town from 4 lanes to 2 lanes in 2014. Several other roads were also narrowed to add bike lanes, curbs, or turning lanes. Instead of raised medians, they planted flowers and firmly bolted benches to the concrete.

Throw all of these factors into a cauldron with a fire moving like an express train with no warning to citizens and inaccurate/botched communications, including evacuation routes...and it creates a heart racing, terrifying story.

It's gut wrenching to hear the personal decisions that are made to try to survive. The volume of 911 calls was like a tidal wave. A real clear message about large catastrophes is that each person has to determine how they can survive because emergency personnel can't respond to all inquiries.

The book describes how psychologists have identified three distinct phases in a human's response to danger:
* Denial: creates a false sense of security. Don't really need to evacuate. We've survived other wildfires that didn't reach us. Spend time scrolling through Facebook and websites for information---but the fire is raging faster than accurate communications can get out.
* Deliberation: make irrational choices on what to pack and what action to take. They waste valuable time when they should just be leaving.
* Action: how quickly people arrive at action may save their life and the lives of their loved ones and friends

It's an incredibly tragic story where many lives were lost.

Hopefully there are lessons learned that can help prevent future occurrences as well as provide readers with insights on actions to take if they find themselves in an emergency situation that requires quick action.

Highly recommend.
Profile Image for Lisa.
136 reviews66 followers
January 30, 2022
Never having lived in a wildfire-prone area, I haven’t thought very deeply before about what it would be like to live through a wildfire. Wow, what a terrifying and heartbreaking experience.

This book is about the Camp Fire that ravaged Northern California’s Butte County in November 2018. It was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California to date. The author shares the experiences of a broad range of people whose lives were upended by the disaster, including residents, first responders, and town officials. Everyone had to make a number of important decisions in a very short amount of time under intense circumstances, and the author pulls the reader into all of fear and other emotions surging through Butte County on the day of the fire and throughout its aftermath.

The author is a reporter, and the book definitely feels like it is written by a reporter. The personal accounts are interspersed with history of the area and information on climate change. The author also details Pacific Gas & Electric’s (PG&E) role in starting the fire and the negligence that led to the disaster, which is unsettling and infuriating. I thought the book was extremely well written and captivating, but if nonfiction that feels like journalism isn’t your thing, you might find some parts a little dry and/or too detailed.

I didn’t walk away from the book with any answers to the hard questions like what to do about climate change or what is the best way to prevent disasters like the Camp Fire in the future, but I did gain a deeper appreciation for the human experience of wildfires and the complexity of the issues. Wildfires are going to continue devastate communities, and this is an important and worthwhile read for those who want to understand the causes and emotional toll of these disasters more deeply.
Profile Image for Traci Thomas.
590 reviews10.4k followers
August 22, 2021
Loved the first 50%. Made me sick to my stomach. This book is haunting and a reminder of all that’s at stake. The second half slowed down considerably because the fire passes through and the aftermath is much slower. Overall a good book, if not completely terrifying.
Profile Image for Sue.
1,271 reviews548 followers
September 3, 2021
Lizzie Johnson, a staff writer at the San Francisco Chronicle, covered the impact of climate change on California. Part of that impact is reflected in the Chronicle’s coverage of the North Bay Wildfires of 2017 and the Camp Fire of 2018. Johnson led that team. The Camp Fire is probably equally well known by the name of the town it wiped off the earth: Paradise. As Johnson provides through first person on site descriptions, Paradise literally did become hell on November 8, 2019.

This book begins on a relatively quiet note, describing the routine daily existence of firefighters working for Cal Fire and a local leader. I initially wondered if this book was for me. Where was the “event” I had come to this book for, why so slow and calm. Now it comes to me: this must be the reality of living in wildfire country. Things can be routine and fine until they definitely are not.

The description of the beginning of the fire is fascinating for all the factors that came together to culminate in the horror that resulted in Paradise. The different stages are outlined clearly in the text. They range from the over-arching climate change, to a power company that has long neglected infrastructure upkeep, strange wind behavior, untested and uncoordinated and ultimately ineffective evacuation plans, even lack of community planning in the hills and mountains that were first settled long ago and grew with little oversight. I’m being simplistic here. The book is fascinating on each point, especially as individuals in places of authority begin to realize that something beyond their experience is underway.

I do recommend this book for anyone interested in the real world implications of climate change. It’s similar to a true crime novel in its intensity. And once the intensity begins, it continues for a long time. There is a lengthy section with footnotes at the end of my copy. Johnson also discusses some of her work with citizens and officials of Paradise during and after the fire.

I am rating this book 5*

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.
Profile Image for Rick Wilson.
700 reviews257 followers
August 20, 2022
“The adjective is the enemy of the noun,"- Voltaire, probably inspired by this book

sometimes I just want to know things without all of the adjectives. It’s a really interesting story. About people trying to survive climate change, forest fires, our changing world, interwoven with indigenous mythmaking. But this book is so full of fluff though that I struggled with it.

It’s like writing a college essay when you’re trying to hit a word count. The pile of packages have to LOOM in the corner. The daffodils can’t be yellow. They have to be BUTTER yellow. The rubble can’t smoke. It has to SMOLDER. The author never misses a chance to inject a superfluous adjective. The whole experience reminds me of driving through one of those neighborhoods with the speed bumps every 20 feet. You can never really get momentum going on the story.

And while the overall story is interesting, I would even venture important, this book should’ve been a third the size. If editors had a code of conduct or professional agency, I would report them to the board for malpractice on this one.
Profile Image for Stephanie .
1,115 reviews43 followers
March 28, 2021
Fire season was very real for us last year. And the year before, and before. Northern CA has endured more than its share of fire damage, and the worst of all might be the November 2018 “Camp Fire” that destroyed the beautiful town of Paradise. Lizzie Johnson, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, tells the minute-by-minute story of this disaster, having done years of investigating, including reviewing public records (including 911 calls and grand jury testimony) and interviews with locals, both officials and “just folks.”

The fire was FAST. Less than two hours after it started, the town was engulfed in flames. And for anyone who has visited the area, you KNOW there are limited roads in and out of this beautiful area. Her reporting follows “…residents and first responders as they fight to save themselves and their town. We see a young mother fleeing with her newborn; a school bus full of children in search of an escape route; and a group of paramedics, patients, and nurses trapped in a cul-de-sac, fending off the fire with rakes and hoses.” It’s heartbreaking.

But it is also maddening, as Johnson explores the causes of the fire, including climate change, a seriously lacking alert system, and the criminal neglect of essential infrastructure by PG&E (Pacific Gas and Electric, whose transmission lines have been widely blamed for causing the blaze). I’m giving this five stars because it is incredibly well researched and reported, and it’s a story that needs to be told — and read. I admit I couldn’t read every word, because it was just too painful to be reminded what friends and relatives have dealt with recently and will likely face again…unless of course we follow the advice of the deranged former president who suggests raking the forest floors. Yikes. Thanks to Crown Publishing and NetGalley for a copy of Paradise in exchange for this honest review.
Profile Image for Karen R.
847 reviews498 followers
August 17, 2021
Lizzie Johnson has painstakingly documented the unfolding ferocious Camp Fire tragedy of Butte, Montana, the most aggressive wildfire in California History. An incredibly heartbreaking and devastating story.
Profile Image for Lilisa.
440 reviews63 followers
May 3, 2021
Wildfires are devastating - destroying lives, property, and communities. Documenting the harrowing and tragic experience that people lived and continue to live in a wildfire’s aftermath is a fine balance requiring skilled research, sensitivity while interviewing people to capture their mental and emotional anguish, and then combining both for the reader in a taut, fast-paced, and very real "in the present” moment is an extremely tall feat. Journalist Lizzie Johnson does all of this and much more in her debut book, which is in the order of an Erik Larson-level book - and yes, I read the book because Erik Larson referred to it as “A reportorial tour de force” - high praise indeed. The Nov. 8, 2018 California Camp Fire killed 85 people (with one of the deaths attributed to being a suicide as a result of the fire) and decimated the lives of the Paradise community and surrounding area in one of the deadliest wildfires in recent times. The author brought each person to life on the pages of the book, we get to know each person, the details of what they were doing before, during, and after the fires - their mental and emotional states and their frantic drive, ride, or walk to safety or not…With superb writing that conveyed the urgency, turmoil, and frantic nature of the unfolding tragedy, I had to put the book down often as the real-life experience seemed to jump out of the pages at me - crowding me in as I seemed to be living the wildfire experience through the characters in the moment. As a result, it took much longer to finish the book than I anticipated - not because it wasn’t amazingly well-written nor the topic riveting, but because it was. The Paradise wildfire was a result of several factors, not just one, and the book provides great insight into how and why wildfires occur. What comes through the book is the trust the community of Paradise have in the author to have shared their unfiltered thoughts, feelings, and lives to make this account of California’s Camp Fire immediate and real for us readers - thanks to all those who shared their stories with Lizzie Johnson - this is a must-read book and I highly recommend it. Many thanks to the author, the publisher, and NetGalley for the opportunity to read and review this early copy.
Profile Image for Staci.
1,785 reviews542 followers
December 4, 2021
Discovered this book due to its nomination for a Goodreads Choice Award. Listened to the Audible version with the author as narrator.

The book begins with background about several people later impacted by the fire. This helped understand how this tragedy altered their lives.

Tons of interesting details about not only this specific fire, but also wildfires in general.

Definitely recommended.
Profile Image for booklady.
2,322 reviews65 followers
October 14, 2022
My first thoughts on opening the book were: where are the maps? Where is the solid geographical information to help the reader understand the situation, topography and progression of the disaster? There are a few very simple single-line pencil drawings to show the town and area, but I was still confused. The book is 20% information and the rest drama. My recommendation: watch Frontline’s Fire in Paradise. I understood more in the first ten minutes of that than I did from reading this whole book. Usually, I will give up before wasting so much time on an unsatisfying read.

No rating out of respect for the dead, their loved ones and all those who lost so much in this terrible tragedy. I would not want my disappointment in the book’s approach to be in any way confused with a lack of concern for what happened. A former Disaster Preparedness Officer in the USAF, our office used to train for, coordinate and respond to major accidents and natural disasters, so the desire to understand how something, like this fire, can go so horribly wrong remains as strong as ever.
Profile Image for Debbie "DJ".
352 reviews403 followers
December 7, 2022
I lived in Paradise for 20 years and sold my home the year before the fire. My mother and numerous friends are lucky to be alive. Their stories are horrendous and terrifying. Many suffer from PTSD and are still struggling. I want to scream to this author know your audience! Ever description of the town’s people was soooo small town antics I wanted to scream. We are not the backwoods people you describe! While I appreciated some of the facts for how the fire started, how quickly it spread, and what happened, I couldn’t get over all the descriptions of its people!
Profile Image for Melanie.
327 reviews14 followers
September 2, 2021
This book is riveting, visceral and terrifying. It's an exhaustive account of the Camp Fire that destroyed the California town of Paradise in 2018 and killed 85 people—with more people dying later of related trauma. I read it in a 24-hour period because I had to know what happened next, what happened to each "character." I don't say that to minimize this very real story, but to point out that author Lizzie Johnson's storytelling makes me very concerned for each of the people we get to know and deeply caring to know what will happen to them.

As a former newspaper reporter, I was in awe of the exhaustive reporting Johnson had to have done. She starts off the book by describing a multitude of people who will be affected that day. You get to know them through even the most minute detail of their life, which would have required Johnson to ask endless questions about their lives pre-Camp Fire. (She is only in her mid-20s!) The book also explains to someone like me (from the Midwest, living on the East Coast), who knows little about fires, how this fire started but also how California got to this place (climate change, of course, but other failures too).

There is some explanation of the fault of this fire, and other fires, and the problems with the state electric company PG&E (same company that poisoned the groundwater that you learned about in the movie "Erin Brockovich"), but the heart of the story are the people—those who were trying to escape, those who stayed behind or got trapped behind, and the everyday people, local officials, health care workers, law enforcement and fire fighters who tried to save people.
Profile Image for Kelly.
Author 7 books1,212 followers
December 12, 2021
An outstanding, engaging, enraging, and harrowing story of the fire that destroyed the community of Paradise, California, in November 2018. This is about the people who made up the town, what made the town special, and all of the things that made this fire devastating, from miscommunications to poor management decisions for the sake of saving money to PG&E's utter lack of supervision and management of their services. It's a very hard read but it's absolutely fantastic and should be required for understanding not just the need to keep corporations like PG&E accountable, but to consider emergency management more seriously -- I kept telling my husband as I read that it was the folks on the ground in public works saying that more needed to be done to keep pine needles and brush cleared who should be listened to more seriously, rather than be brushed off with comments that those are "nice to haves."

Johnson performs the audiobook and is an excellent narrator. I was especially smitten with her pronunciation of Ts throughout, as it struck me as very midwestern. She's originally from Nebraska, so it made perfect sense.

It's worth noting, too, Johnson chose to live part-time in Paradise to write this book, and her ability to be embedded in a community grieving and struggling and completely unlike what it had been prior to the fire is noteworthy. Any nonfiction is going to have the author's voice in it, but she never once uses "I" or some reference to herself or the how of her research and storytelling (I 100% don't mind that, but the ability to be removed and so present is impressive).

Easily some of the best longform/narrative/journalistic nonfiction of 2021.
Profile Image for Franziska.
167 reviews17 followers
November 2, 2021
I’ve been listening to the audio book, read by the author herself. She has done immense research and knows how to tell a factual but also very emotional story of many individuals who had to deal with the catastrophic wildfire which nearly destroyed the small town Paradise (California). It’s also a devastating account of neglect by the electrical power company which led to this disaster.
Very recommended to everyone who wants to know the story behind one of the deadliest wildfires in California so far.
Profile Image for Chris.
163 reviews1 follower
June 11, 2022
It is obvious that Johnson cares very deeply about the people she interviewed for this book, and wants to tell their stories and humanize their experiences. However, there was often so much backstory, childhood memories, failed first marriages, inspirational moments, past challenges overcome, etc that the book was constantly losing narrative momentum to tell yet another story that, while certainly deeply important to the teller, had little to nothing to do with the fire and their experience in it. Introductions to people that could have been a few sentences at most stretched on to pages and it became hard to keep track of who was who, and the trajectory of their story.

Coupled with the fact that much of the discussion of the actual fire was reconstructions of people's experiences as literary non-fiction, that I never really got a sense of what happened, what the time line of events were, and how the fire unfolded beyond a general impression of a massive traffic jam. The timeline of the various stories was hopelessly confused.

This book also suffered from the lack of an exploration--beyond a brief part about how PGE is an evil corporation who needs to prevent their equipment from causing fires--of the issues and responsibility for the death and destruction in this human-centric telling of the story. It's hinted a few people maybe could have done something differently, but they were trying their best and here's a childhood story about why they moved back to Paradise...

I understand very human-centric, interview-centric non-fiction has an audience, and that audience clearly isn't me, but this took the genre to the point I was just waiting for it to be over.

Profile Image for Christine Merrill.
482 reviews96 followers
September 7, 2021
A must-read for Californians. An unflinching and emotionally moving account of what led to the Camp Fire and the lasting effect it had on the Paradise community--although it was tough to read at times, it was hard to put down. Lizzie Johnson is a talented reporter and she managed to make a recent-ish event read like (horrific) fiction.

As a Chico State graduate who has nothing but the fondest memories of my four years in Butte County, the Camp Fire is never how I would have wanted (or expected) to see Chico/Paradise and Butte County on the national stage. But as a born-and-raised-and-back-again Californian, I'm also shocked and horrified at the corporate greed and negligence shown by PG&E and concerned about the lack of consensus and action made on combating climate change in a state that is dramatically changing. Wildfire season should not be a thing, and I'm hopeful that more people reading books like Paradise will help us work more collaboratively and intentionally for a solution.
Profile Image for Marilyn Smith.
167 reviews
April 6, 2021
Once again, western states are preparing for a dry and possibly explosive fire year. I needed to read this book for its lessons learned by the town of Paradise and all the the west with fires a reality.
I wanted to read this in-depth accounting of how terrified residents and first responders sought escape and rescue against enormous odds. I'm in awe of the resilience, courage and inner strength of the residents of Paradise and all who deal with the trauma and rebuilding of their lives and communities after huge fires.
I've never considered wild fire a concern until these past five years. Last year's fires were too close for comfort. Now I plan and prepare all the time, watching with a wary eye, ready to go.
Thanks to Lizzie Johnson for her superb deep reporting.

Profile Image for Carolyn.
439 reviews17 followers
November 16, 2021
Wow. This book is incredibly well written by the fire reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, who has been quite busy over the last few years covering California wildfires. I think she said she'd been writing exclusively about the wildfires for 10 years, even went to fire fighter training. I listened to this on audiobook, read by the author, forgetting to mark it as "currently reading" here on Goodreads, and it was completely gripping. She did hundreds of interviews with real survivors of the Paradise fires and used a narrative style that focused on the human stories as well as the causes of the fires and PG&E's history of negligence maintaining equipment. Highly recommend.
Profile Image for Susan.
947 reviews
March 21, 2022
My bookish friend Maudeen Haisch Wachsmith made me do it! Her resoundingly positive endorsement of Paradise by Lizzie Johnson compelled me to read the book and I’m so glad is did! I am a Californian who has packed the house to evacuate from wildfires more than once - my sister’s house nearly burned down in a wildfire (the flames stopped at her fence) so I didn’t think I could read it it- too traumatizing- but I did it thanks to Maudeen. I waited until we were out of fire season at least. I shouldn’t have waited. What a great and propulsive read. The author is a journalist who covered the fire for the SF Chronicle. She tells the story of the fire - its background and aftermath—through the stories of the people most affected- townspeople, firefighters, law enforement, the town manager -in a compelling and edge of your seat narrative. Johnson profiles heroes who took chances with their own lives to save others, people who survived thanks to luck and smarts, and those responsible for the fire who took ownership only when prosecuted (here’s looking at you PG&E). I started it on audio but I wanted to read it faster than audio so switched to Kindle. Thank you Maudeen!! There is another book about the Paradise football team written by LA Times columnist Bill Plaschke that I am going to read now.
Profile Image for Ula Tardigrade.
203 reviews18 followers
August 17, 2021
A fine example of narrative nonfiction.

You’ve probably heard about the devastating 2018 Camp Fire in California and the tragedy of a little town of Paradise. As I am interested in the wildfires, I have read a lot of articles about it, even watched a documentary. But there is no better way to tell such a story then through carefully reconstructed minute-to-minute doings of people who survived it. The author did her homework - she spent five years on the research and conducted more than five hundred interviews. The result is impressive, if sometimes a little overwhelming. In addition to this personal recollections, a reader will find also interesting background, spanning from the history of the settlement in California to the various methods of fighting the wildfires.

It is a perfect book for another summer that is too hot to bear, with natural disasters nonstop in the news. Maybe such vivid stories will make more people aware of the danger that we are all in because of the climate crisis.

Thanks to the publisher, Crown, and NetGalley for the advance copy of this book.
Profile Image for Shelby.
338 reviews72 followers
December 29, 2021
Incredible and sensitive journalism. I hope Lizzie Johnson writes more books. She's from Nebraska!! I recommend the audiobook.
Profile Image for Nicole.
322 reviews2 followers
August 21, 2021
A great depiction of the devastating California camp fire. The author did a great job describing the terror as residents tried to escape to safety.
Profile Image for Gummih.
120 reviews5 followers
September 19, 2023
The book covers the events of 2018 when a California wildfire burned down the town of Paradise, making it at the time the US' deadliest wildfire in a century. I read this as a part of a book club, we decided on this book only a few days after the horrible events of the Maui wildfires (2023) so reading it in the aftermath of those events also made it even more impactful. But also it drew attention to the book's description which says: "a riveting examination of what went wrong and how to avert future tragedies as the climate crisis unfolds".

The description of how the events unfolded is chilling and demonstrates how horribly things can go wrong in a situation like this, both with logistics and technology, not to mention the role that infrastructure and lack of maintenance played in this tragedy.

There are many heartbreaking passages but the list of casualties and their circumstances when found was extremely sad for me, a bit reminiscent of how I felt witnessing the victims of Pompeii.

All in all I felt the writing was good. It does a good job of relating both personal and public records of events.
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