Excerpt from Fire in Paradise by Alastair Gee, Dani Anguiano, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Fire in Paradise

An American Tragedy

by Alastair Gee, Dani Anguiano

Fire in Paradise by Alastair Gee, Dani Anguiano X
Fire in Paradise by Alastair Gee, Dani Anguiano
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  • First Published:
    May 2020, 256 pages

    Apr 2021, 256 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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About this Book

Print Excerpt

Before many people in Paradise knew there was a fire on the morning of November 8, it announced its presence with strange portents. Churning through the friable brush in the river canyons and uplands east of town, drawing power from the wind, it watercolored the atmosphere and flung little bits of itself far into the distance.

At a home in eastern Paradise, a man took his dog out into the yard for its morning exercise when he realized that the lawn was covered in burned leaves. It was so dark when another local rose at 8:00 a.m. that he thought the sun hadn't risen yet, though when he looked up he saw a red reflection in the murk. A senior went to a doctor's appointment and found that no one had shown up for work. But from somewhere in the distance he could hear metallic explosions. And at the Cypress Meadows nursing home, a manager was standing outside around 7:50 when a maintenance worker ran over holding a charred piece of bark: "This just came out of the sky. It was on fire."

In town, a forty-four-year-old homemaker called her daughters' high school to ask whether classes had been canceled owing to the plume she could see on the eastern horizon. They weren't going to cancel classes for smoke, they told her. After all, fires were a regular part of life in Paradise. So she and the two teenagers hopped in the car and drove to Paradise High. On the way they noticed that the pines were coated in ash, as if there had been a blizzard.

In eastern Paradise, a former nurse was trying to motivate herself to get up when her ten-year-old daughter skipped into her room in raptures over the sunrise. It's so beautiful this morning, she told her mother. She asked for her mom's phone so she could take a picture of it. The forty-seven-year-old, who struggled with a rare disease that caused pain so debilitating it had ended her career, forced herself out of bed to look at the dusky sky. When she opened the door to let the family's barking dog out, she saw that her garden was veiled with smog.

And a few miles away, when Patricia Smith walked to her daughter's house along the path that separated it from her own cottage, a black feather drifted past her nose. Smith had come to America in 1983 from the British town of Boston and had mostly lived in the Bay Area. But in 2017 she, her husband, and her daughter's family had moved to a wooded, five-acre spread in Paradise that they felt absurdly lucky to have been able to afford. Smith's windows faced the forest—it was so splendidly secluded you could walk around the cottage naked if you felt so inclined.

That morning, her daughter's alarm had not gone off, and they'd all slept in late. At 8:30 a.m., Smith's granddaughter bounded over to the cottage to wake her up and tell her about the fire. "Me being English, I'm like, oh wait, I've got to make a cup of tea," Smith said. She drank half of it and had the cup in hand when the feather floated past, inches from her face. Bending down to take a closer look, she found it warm to the touch. It wasn't from a bird. It was a charred wooden ember. She looked up. The horizon was red but the entire rest of the sky was black—it was hypnotic and beautiful and very, very wrong. She jogged the rest of the way to her daughter's, spilling the remaining tea, and said: "We have to get out of here.

Emergency dispatchers were fielding calls from increasingly panicked residents. A woman named Ann called 911 because she didn't have a car in which to evacuate. She couldn't leave with neighbors, she said, because they wouldn't take her dogs.

"Ma'am, you need to save your own life. I understand your dogs are precious to you, but you need to save your own life," the dispatcher told her. "I'll pass it on to the police department that you're having a hard time but I can't guarantee that we can get anyone there to help you. So you probably should go with the neighbors, OK?"

The woman began to sob.

Adapted from Fire in Paradise: : An American Tragedy. Copyright (c) 2020 by Alastair Gee and Dani Anguiano. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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