BookBrowse Reviews Fire in Paradise by Alastair Gee, Dani Anguiano

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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



A propulsive account of the 2018 Camp Fire that leveled Paradise, California, told by journalists that witnessed the disaster firsthand.

On November 8, 2018, a fire started in Northern California's Butte County after 50-70 mph winds snapped a PG&E cable, sending sparks into the underbrush below. In the earlier morning hours, the fire spread through the small town of Concow and into neighboring Paradise, which had a population of about 27,000 at the time. Journalists Alastair Gee and Dani Anguiano, who were working in the Guardian's Bay Area office, conducted extensive interviews during the fire and in the aftermath. The accounts they collected from residents make up the play-by-play narrative that unfolds like a disaster movie in Fire in Paradise. Even though they establish in the prologue that the Camp Fire became the deadliest blaze in recorded California history, leaving "total devastation" in its wake, the book still inspires a breathless suspense, as the real people you come to know quite intimately very quickly appear utterly doomed.

Some of the central characters are the firefighters that plunged directly into the blaze while others were trying desperately to get out (when an evacuation order was announced, everyone flooded the roads at once, making passage nearly impossible). Cal Fire bulldozer operator Joe Kennedy encountered and rescued a group of medical personnel and patients fleeing Feather River Hospital, fighting through a vehicle pile-up to help them. Some of the cars were abandoned; some were occupied by burned bodies. Concow resident Joanna Curtin recalls seeing "a fire tornado as wide as a pickup truck," at which point she got in her car to flee and promptly slammed into another vehicle due to poor visibility, resulting in seven broken ribs. Perhaps the most moving story is that of octogenarian retired volunteer firefighter John Sedwick, who refused to flee his town despite the evacuation orders, instead pitching in to clear brush and guide the other firefighters, working tirelessly to protect his neighbors' homes.

In the aftermath of such a tragedy, one wants to know who is at fault. Is it PG&E? Many residents thought so and filed a class-action lawsuit days after the fire began. The city itself received a $270 million payout, and the company filed for bankruptcy. The infrastructure of the town? There was a serious breakdown in emergency response; many residents did not get the call to evacuate, and many more could not get through to emergency services when they desperately needed help.

However, the authors also view the Camp Fire through a wider lens, explaining how an increase in temperature creates all sorts of conditions that make the wildfires we've seen in California in recent years more severe than in the past. They explain that "Nine of the ten years of the most extensive fire activity in the western US have been since the year 2000, and by 2050 it is expected that two or even four times the acreage of western forests will burn as a result of global warming." Seen in this context, Paradise is a cautionary tale.

But while the authors do discuss climate change, they also refuse to allow Paradise's victims and heroes to become symbols or martyrs in such a way that might inadvertently dehumanize them. Their depictions of these individuals are powerful and vivid; we genuinely come to know them. In the book's acknowledgments, Gee and Anguiano describe being dispatched to Paradise by the Guardian within hours of the fire starting, and the personal connections made and genuine esteem felt for the residents are evident on every page. This is a powerful work of narrative nonfiction with a word of warning about the perils we face in a warming world, but it's also an eloquent and heartening illustration of empathy, generosity and hope.

Reviewed by Lisa Butts

This review first ran in the May 20, 2020 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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