One Town's Struggle to Survive an American Wildfire



Award Winner

August 17, 2021 | ISBN 9780593136393

AmazonApple BooksBarnes & NobleBooks A MillionGoogle Play StoreKobo

About the Book

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

“A tour de force story of wildfire and a terrifying look at what lies ahead.”—San Francisco Chronicle (Best Books of the Year)

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 the fire ignited, the town was engulfed in flames, the residents trapped in their homes and cars. By the next morning, eighty-five people were dead.

As a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, 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.

In Paradise, 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.
Read more

Listen to a sample from Paradise

Praise for Paradise

“A vivid ticktock account of the disaster, told through the stories of those who experienced it.”—The New York Times
“In this reportorial tour de force, Lizzie Johnson captures the orange-black hell of the Paradise wildfire in wrenching, skin-singeing detail. You can smell the smoke, feel the super-heated air. After reading this book I wanted to clear all brush and trees away from my home—and I live in Manhattan.”—Erik Larson, author of The Splendid and the Vile

Paradise is a phenomenal piece of reporting, filled with love and loss, valor and terror. Lizzie Johnson has written the definitive account of an American tragedy.”—Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction

“Immediate and emotionally devastating . . . Johnson works to balance the imperative of narrative tension with respect for the unimaginable tragedy, and the resulting work is worth the emotional toll of reading it.”—Los Angeles Times

“A masterful feat of reporting and climate-era storytelling. [Johnson] has taken the story of a rough-hewn town of retirees and Trumpers, population 27,000 (pre-fire), and turned it into a parable of suffering and loss, of love and heroism.”—Rolling Stone

Paradise delves so deep into the experiences of every character that we see the fire through their eyes. . . . That’s the true feat of Johnson’s meticulous account: she humanizes a tragedy that is otherwise too big to fathom. . . . More than just a portrait of destruction, this book is a small act of restoration.”Outside

“Writers seek intimacy to get readers to care about their subjects when disaster strikes. That tactic works here, yet it does more. Johnson’s kaleidoscope of biographical snapshots creates a twenty-first-century version of Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 novel, Winesburg, Ohio.”The Washington Post

“Riveting . . . Paradise does what good journalism is supposed to do: It bears witness, in sharp, moving detail, to what happened.”BuzzFeed News

“Johnson does for California’s deadliest wildfire what Sheri Fink did for Hurricane Katrina in Five Days at Memorial. . . . The book is unmatched for the depth, breadth, and quality of its reporting on a major twenty-first-century wildfire, and it’s likely to become the definitive account of the catastrophe in Paradise.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Gripping, shocking, and intimate . . . The definitive story of an American tragedy.”—Library Journal (starred review)

“A viscerally harrowing, almost minute-by-minute narrative . . . [Johnson] humanizes the book with detailed, sensitively told stories of many of the townspeople.”—Booklist (starred review)

Paradise is a propulsive, compassionate tale of lives forever altered and the lessons we must learn about our rapidly changing planet.”—Robert Kolker, author of Hidden Valley Road

“In the tradition of disaster-reporting classics like 102 Minutes and Five Days at Memorial, Paradise delivers everything you expect from the best narrative nonfiction: on-the-ground reporting, incisive writing, and thoughtful analysis. . . . A masterful achievement.”—Nate Blakeslee, author of American Wolf
Read more


Chapter 1

Dawn at Jarbo Gap

For weeks, Captain Matt McKenzie had longed for rain. It would signal the end of wildfire season, which should have concluded by now, but November had brought only a parched wind. The jet stream was sluggish, failing to push rainclouds up and over the Sierra Nevada into Northern California. Since May 1, 2018, Butte County—­150 miles northeast of San Francisco and 80 miles north of Sacramento—­had received only 0.88 inches of precipitation. The low rainfall broke local records. It was now November 8, and with three weeks to go until Thanksgiving, the sky remained a stubborn, unbroken blue. Plants withered and died, their precious moisture sucked into the atmosphere. Oak and madrone shook off their brittle leaves.

Ponderosa pine needles fell like the raindrops that refused to come, pinging against the fire station’s tin roof and waking ­McKenzie from a deep sleep around 5:30 a.m. A pinecone landed with a thud. He curled up on the twin bed in his station bedroom, feet poking from under the thin comforter, and oriented himself in the darkness. He didn’t feel ready for the day to begin. Blackness edged the only window. Outside, gale force winds wailed through the hallway. He pulled aside the window blinds for confirmation: no rain. The sliver of a waxing moon and winking stars pricked the sky’s endless dark. In an hour, the sun would rise.

After more than two decades of firefighting, McKenzie, forty-­two, possessed a certain clairvoyance. He had dedicated half his life to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, helping to battle conflagrations that sprouted in the vastness of California during its fire season. In such a huge state, urban departments could cover only so much ground; there had to be a larger force to stop fires before they burned too far or too fast in the wilderness bordering cities and towns. Known as Cal Fire, the state agency was one of the largest dedicated wildland firefighting forces in the world.

McKenzie had learned to read the agency’s weather reports like tea leaves. When conditions were right, all it took was a spark to ignite an inferno. McKenzie and his crew were trained to anticipate and react aggressively, jumping into action while the fires were still small and easily contained. Nothing was left to chance. They did this the old-­fashioned way, by digging dirt firebreaks and spraying water from their engines. The method was effective: Only 2 to 3 percent of the wildfires they tackled ever escaped their control. But fires broke out all over California every year, and members of his outpost, Station 36, were called upon to help quench the most destructive ones as part of the state’s mutual aid agreement, by which jurisdictions pledged to help each other out during emergencies. The crew spent the year crisscrossing the state, from barren Siskiyou to coastal San Diego.

Innocuous mishaps—­a golf club or lawn mower striking a rock, a malfunctioning electric livestock fence, a trailer dragging against the asphalt, a catalytic converter spewing hot carbon—­could beget a blaze. More often, though, fires were started by downed electrical lines. They would snap and spark in high winds, showering embers and grief across entire communities. Lately, the Pacific Gas & Electric Company, the largest power provider in California, was experimenting with shutting off power when high fire risk was forecast.

In a remotely operated weather site near McKenzie’s fire station, an anemometer was whirring, generating the next forecast. Surrounded by chain-­link fencing, the instrument thrummed atop a slender tripod 20 feet tall, its three cupped hands circling faster and faster. It registered winds blowing at 32 mph, with gusts up to 52 mph. That November morning, wind wasn’t the only problem. Relative humidity plummeted to 23 percent and continued dropping. By noon, it was forecast to hit 5 percent—­drier than the Sahara Desert.

McKenzie ran a hand through his silvered hair and swung his feet to the tile floor, trudging to the bathroom with a towel slung over one arm. Standing six foot one, he was tall and slim, with deep dimples and piercing blue-­gray eyes. He had led Station 36 for four years and treasured its cowboy grit and strong camaraderie with the community, mostly retirees, loggers, off-­the-­gridders, and marijuana growers. McKenzie was now in the middle of a seventy-­two-­hour shift overseeing the station, one of the oldest and most fire-­prone posts in Butte County. Covering 1,636 square miles in far Northern California, the county was nearer to the Oregon border than to Los Angeles, its small valley cities and hideaway mountain towns scattered along the leeward side of the Sierra Nevada. In the past twenty-­five years, flames had ravaged the foothills 103 times. The worst of them—­the Poe Fire, in 2001, and the Butte Lightning Complex and Humboldt fires, both in 2008—­had devastated the county’s rural communities, including those near McKenzie’s station.

His outpost was perched on a knob of land off State Highway 70, the last stop before motorists entered U.S. Forest Service jurisdiction. At an elevation of 2,200 feet, the station overlooked the Feather River Canyon and abutted the western edge of Plumas National Forest. McKenzie joked that it was built on “the road to nowhere.” A long driveway unspooled to a compound of squat tan buildings: a large garage for the fire engines, an office, and a twelve-­bed barracks. Two captains—he was one of them—­had rotating shifts and shared a private bedroom behind the kitchen. Everyone else slept in the dorm. At least six firefighters stayed on duty at all times, tasked with putting out house fires and responding to vehicle accidents or medical emergencies.

The men at Station 36 spent a lot of time together, much of it trying to impress McKenzie, whom they admired. They competed to hike the fastest or do the most push-­ups, growing close through the friendly rivalry. On slow afternoons, they would pull weeds from the station’s vegetable garden, tend its fruit trees, and play elaborate games of darts in the garage, storing their personalized game pieces in metal lockers labeled with tape. They would jam the living room armchairs against the wall and crank up the heater for floor exercises, sweating so profusely that the photos on the wall curled in their frames.

When they had a break, sometimes McKenzie and his crew would head to Scooters Café, a family-owned restaurant that—­other than a hardware store, a stone lodge turned into a diner, and a market with two gas pumps—­was the nearest business around. Motorcyclists choked its parking lot, waiting in a long line for Fatboy burgers—­named after the Harley-­Davidson motorcycle—­or $2.00 beef tacos on Tuesdays. The owner of the red-­walled café was a mild-­mannered man who never called 911 or allowed his patrons to drive drunk. He served beer and “Scooteritas,” but no wine, and he often dropped glazed doughnuts off for the firefighters. Sometimes he scheduled karaoke nights, hosted car shows, or booked concerts. McKenzie and his crew would sit on the station lawn and listen, the music echoing uphill in the summer air.

Station 36 was a quiet place, its stillness punctuated by the occasional grumble of highway traffic and the whoosh of wind. As one week in November turned to another, still with no rain, the crew hiked to a long-­ago-­burned home, its gardens lush with unkempt fig trees and wild blackberry thickets, and foraged for fruit to bake a cobbler. They responded to accidents at Sandy Beach, where swimmers like to launch themselves into the Feather River with a rope swing and sometimes get stuck in the currents. They scanned the canyon for smoke.

The Feather River Canyon had a long history of wind-­driven wildfires. Station 36 existed in part because of its proximity to this yawning crack in the earth. The sixty-­mile chasm snaked across Butte County, from Lassen National Forest to Lake Oroville; it trapped seasonal winds as they spun clockwise over the Sierra Nevada and pushed them toward the low-­pressure coast. The winds blew day and night, billowing up the canyon walls as sunshine warmed the air and down as temperatures cooled, clocking speeds upwards of 100 mph and blasting the towns of Magalia, Concow, and Paradise. They pelted homes and windshields with pine needles like obnoxious confetti. When there was a fire, the Feather River Canyon also funneled smoke south, directly to the hallway outside McKenzie’s bedroom. The scent was always a swirling, ghostly harbinger of terrible things to come.

About the Author

Lizzie Johnson
Lizzie Johnson is a staff writer at the Washington Post. Previously, she worked at the San Francisco Chronicle, where she 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 Washington, DC. More by Lizzie Johnson
Decorative Carat