One Town's Struggle to Survive an American Wildfire

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Pub Date 17 Aug 2021 | Archive Date 31 Dec 2021

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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

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE AND SHELF AWARENESS • “A tour de force story of wildfire and a terrifying look at what lies ahead.”—San Francisco Chronicle

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.
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...

Advance Praise

“In this reportorial tour de force, Lizzie Johnson captures the orange-black hell of the Paradise wildfire in wrenching, skin-singing 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 and The Devil in the White City

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 Under a White Sky and The Sixth Extinction

“Part Rachel Carson, part The Perfect Storm, Lizzie Johnson’s Paradise is vital and magnificently crafted—and a book every person who cares about the planet and its citizens should read.”

—Elizabeth Weil, co-author of The Girl Who Smiled Beads

“This account of the deadliest wildfire in California history is a triumph of reportage and storytelling. Out of the ash, Lizzie Johnson has written a memorial to its victims, a tribute to its heroes and survivors, and a reckoning of its kindling and match. Among the culpable, we find ourselves.”

—Mark Arax, author of The Dreamt Land

“In this reportorial tour de force, Lizzie Johnson captures the orange-black hell of the Paradise wildfire in wrenching, skin-singing detail. You can smell the smoke, feel the super-heated air. After...

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Featured Reviews

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.

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Wow... this is my book of the year! I haven't read a disaster book so emotionally gripping since Five Days at Memorial. This is better. The first-hand stories told of people who tried to stay alive but assumed they would die - the stories of schoolkids stuck on a bus that could have caught fire at any minute - the healthcare workers trying to save those stuck in a hospital - the firefighters trying their best to contain something uncontainable... It's hard here to express how reading this made me feel. Just wait until you find out how much it would have cost PG&E to proactively replace the very small piece of equipment that started the fire - but they skipped inspecting to save a few dollars. It's a must read for anyone interested in disasters, wildfires, and the issues these events cause to our society...

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I was interested in this book because I had driven through the area after the fires and saw how devastating it was. I thought the information and stories were well presented and gave me a better idea of what happened. I still can't really wrap my head around how big and scary these fires are, or imagine living in a place that have them.

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Wow. I was completely immersed in this fast-paced true account of the Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise in November 2018. I wanted to read this book because I live in a small California mountain town and the fear of a devastating fire is always present. In fact, I can still see just how close we came to losing it all every time I look out my kitchen window and see the burned hillsides from the Blue Cut Fire. Lizzie Johnson does an excellent job of tying the stories of many, many of the people that were in Paradise and its surrounding communities on the day of the fire as well as in the aftermath. She also blends in details about policy, climate change, etc that really helps paint a picture of the complexities that caused what happened that day. I am so glad I read this. I found myself in tears a few times, and I have been telling my family about several interesting passages. I also learned some things that will change how I respond the next time my community is threatened. I highly recommend this book. Thank you to NetGalley and Crown Publishing for providing a digital advance copy in exchange for my honest review.

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PARADISE by Lizzie Johnson This is the history of the town of Paradise, California, and some of the histories of its early settlers and modern inhabitants. As we all know, the town of Paradise was devastated by the CAMP FIRE in 2018. Paradise was a thriving town before the fire and now it is a struggling area. The book tells more personable details about some of the people who lived there and how the fire and evacuation impacted their lives. It is disheartening because the fire was found to be caused by a faulty PG&E line. This could have been prevented. 85 people lost their lives in this fire. I wanted to read the story of Paradise since I have family that is from there and other family members that live in the same county of Butte. I thought it good to be educated on the strife and struggles of the residents that had endured the heartbreak of the CAMP FIRE. Many thanks to #netgalley for the complimentary copy of #paradise I was under no obligation to post a review.

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This book was amazing! So well written and so well done. Loved it. The story is so big and scary and perfect. Great book.

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Lizzie Johnson deserves plenty of awards for this book. It kept me awake, reading into the small hours as much as the best suspenseful fiction has. Paradise has the emotional depth that tends to make a well-written book stay with the reader. This is the story of the catastrophic 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County near Sacramento, CA. The book focuses on the town of Paradise which was very much in the national news at that time due to the near-total destruction of the town, loss of eighty-five lives, and the sad irony of the town’s name. Ms. Johnson makes the story personal, giving detailed and touching portraits of a number of Paradise’s residents. Her description of the lives of these people and their experience of trying to escape the inferno made my heart race. I came to care about these people thanks to the author’s compassionate yet clear-eyed writing. In additional to these personal stories Ms. Johnson explores the factors that caused or at least contributed to the level of tragedy that befell Paradise. I learned about the short-sighted civic planning (or lack thereof) that led to roads out of town being blocked, trapping hundreds of people; the reliance on cell phones in case of emergency; the lack of a coherent plan to notify residents of the need to evacuate; and the catastrophic, willful negligence of PG & E, the power company that failed to maintain its power lines. These towers were nearly a century old and had a history of failing during California’s violent windstorms, sending exposed live electrical wires into the dry brush below. I was greatly moved by the courage and inventiveness of those who risked their lives to save not just their loved ones but strangers. I hope this book receives the attention and praise it deserves.

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This is a compelling and very clear account of the Camp Fire that destroyed most of Paradise, California. Johnson has done enormous amounts of research to get the human details of this story right, and it is a testament to journalistic non-fiction writing. I recommend this highly for anyone interested in the fire, how wildfires in the American West are managed and fought, and the individual stories of those affected by the fire.

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Can you really say you enjoyed a tragedy about the loss of human life, homes, pets, and all worldly possessions? Perhaps that is not the right term, however this book is certainly a great read and eye opener, for those of us who do not live in California, about what destruction a wildfire can actually cause. As often happens, tragedy can bring out the best in us and this tale shows the bravery of the firefighters, the kindness of strangers, and the resilience of those living in Paradise as they struggle to survive the unimaginable. This book is a worthy read and I would highly recommend it to everyone, especially those who appreciate current non-fiction. Thank you to NetGalley for the advance read copy.

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This is a very important, very readable book about the horrific 2018 California wildfire (called Camp Fire) that almost completely destroyed the towns of Paradise and Concow, killed many (at least 85), and devastated the surrounding areas. It was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California's history. Author Johnson gives us deeply personal portraits of many of the people involved in that wildfire, both before, during and after. I've read many nonfiction books about natural disasters that give greatly detailed accounts, but in a dry, factual type of way. This is not one of those. Johnson writes in a swift, compelling, immensely readable manner. It is a page-turner where the reader gets involved immediately in all aspects of this catastrophe - from the science and politics, to the personal portraits that make it all come alive. There are many lessons to be learned from this terrible event. The entirety of the event, the personal cost of the disaster, heroic efforts, and the sad aftermath are all detailed incredibly well, giving the world a vivid, unforgettable, intimate view of an epic catastrophe that is all too likely to be repeated. A must-have for nonfiction shelves at every public library, and recommended for academic library collections in ecology, forestry, socio-economics, and political science.

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I just reviewed Paradise by Lizzie Johnson. #Paradise #NetGalley I moved into the house I currently live in spring of 2013. The following fall, the Cedar fire, at the time the biggest ever in California, threatened our neighborhood. We evacuated to the next town east of us, some 90 miles away as the fire was encroaching on our property. This book is about the Camp fire, which is still topping the list of the deadliest and most destructive fires in California history. In a very somber at times chilly writing style, Lizzie Johnson makes you feel what it means to live with the danger of wildfires, what the causes are, and the challenges we all face to move on after the devastation hits us. This book may be too close to home to some of us. The paradise fire was the one which changed my attitude towards fire mitigation. The frequency and the size of inclement weather is increasing all over the country. Here in California, we had the largest 7 wildfires ever in the past 5 years, the Cedar Fire barely making the top 10 today. Living with the danger shows in our community as well, just this week I saw 5 tree trimming services busy with fire mitigation at my neighbors houses. If you are not taking fire mitigation serious yet, this book may make you. Lizzie Johnson does an excellent job taking you through the motions. There are private citizens, first responders, healthcare providers, teachers and politicians. She tells the story from all their angles in a way that makes you live through the drama they have been facing, the losses their had and closes the story with how people moved on after facing so much devastation. After returning from our evacuation in El Centro, we had to take the backroads back home as the major arteries in San Diego were still closed. As we were approaching our house, we saw couples crying in each others arms in front of the smoldering ruins of their former residences with less than a mile to go home. Our home was still there and outside of some burn scars on fence poles and charred brushland, there was not damage to my property. Last year, I bought a fire fighting pump to use with my swimming pool. This year, I installed ember proof vents in my house and on Monday, a tree service will take down some dozen pine trees, reduce some honey suckle and take the skirts of the palm trees next to my house. What are you doing to mitigate your risks of climate change?

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This is the best book I've read this year, full stop. I've never lived in a fire-prone area, and this book offers quite the education while weaving in the personal narratives of those affected. It also provides a very wide scope of the massive impact a disaster like this can have on a town, long after the news cameras move on. I walk away from this book with a genuine respect for wildfires. Fair warning, though: this book is not for the faint of heart. Ms. Johnson doesn't hold back at all in describing some of the graphic injuries and horrific deaths that victims endured. I'd say that this adds value to the story - again, I'm fairly ignorant to the concept of an uncontrolled wildfire in a populated area, so this practice certainly painted a picture for me - but I'd be remiss if I didn't note it. I'll be thinking about this one for a long, long time.

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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.

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Paradise by Lizzie Johnson is a superb read with a well defined plot and characters. Well worth the read!

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A harrowing look at the Paradise fire.The author does a fantastic job of leading us through the nightmare that occurred in this town.I followed the nightmare fire on the news and this book takes us behind the scenes as the fire destroyed homes and lives.An inside look at what was truly hell on earth for the people of Paradise.#netball #crown

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A horrific, harrowing, real and first hand account of the wildfire in Paradise, California in 2018, deemed the "Camp Fire." Lizzie Johnson is a a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and her account of this made the feel like you were there. Wildfires scare me the most about being a now California resident even though I live in Southern California, very close to the coast. Wildfires change everything. If you want to learn more about the wildfire in Paradise and what happened in the fallout, this is a good start. Fire in Paradise by Alaistair Gee is also a good one BUT this book is a firsthand account about someone who was there just after it happened. Heartbreaking and so final. Recommended but not light reading. Thanks to Netgalley, Lizzie Johnson and Crown Publishing for an ARC in exchange for an honest review. Available: 8/17/21

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The Camp Fire in November, 2018, virtually destroyed the town of Paradise, California. In her new book, “Paradise,” reporter Lizzie Johnson delivers a breathtaking, minute-by-minute account of the fire, from its first embers to its devastating aftermath, told through the personal stories of the firefighters, emergency responders, town officials and ordinary residents who went through it. I should say right from the start that “Paradise” is not particularly firefighter-focused; if you want a book that concentrates on how the fire was actually fought on the front lines, this is not the one for you. But if you want a comprehensive look at the the Camp Fire from numerous perspectives—geological, ecological, political, governmental, personal—then “Paradise” will be an engrossing and satisfying read. Thank you to NetGalley and Crown Publishing for providing me with an ARC of this title in return for my honest review.

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