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'Paradise' Explores A Previous Record Breaking Wildfire Season

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This summer is setting a record-breaking - or should we say another record-breaking - season for wildfires in much of the American West. For that matter, much of the world. The 2018 Camp Fire in northern California killed at least 85 people and injured 19, including five firefighters. The fire destroyed 18,000 homes and other structures and just about the entire town of Paradise, Calif. Lizzie Johnson, then of the San Francisco Chronicle, has told the story of a town's destruction and gripping personal portraits of people who had to run for their lives and try to save those they love. Her book, "Paradise: One Town's Struggle To Survive An American Wildfire." And Lizzie Johnson, now with The Washington Post, joins us from Washington, D.C. Thanks so much for being with us.

LIZZIE JOHNSON: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: I feel the need, in a weekend where the news is filled with wildfires, to make it clear from the first. We know what was responsible for that fire - climate change and corporate negligence.

JOHNSON: Yeah, the Camp Fire was the result of a Pacific Gas and Electric Company transmission tower failing, and it was entirely preventable. There was this one hook on it that had worn away over the years. And it would have only cost $19 to repair it, but they didn't repair it. And so on that day in November 2018, the town ended up burning down.

SIMON: And of course, the extraordinary burning we're seeing is - is it fair to say without doubt it owes to climate change?

JOHNSON: Yeah, the conditions that we've been seeing in recent years, it's just unlike anything that firefighters and climate scientists have seen in the past. And it's accelerating along a trend that isn't expected to slow down any time soon.

SIMON: Why do you make the point of beginning the book with a Konkow tribal legend?

JOHNSON: Before white settlers came over from Europe, indigenous people in the Americas had a way of using fire as a tool. They didn't see it as evil. They realized that it was a very healthy part of the environment and should be part of the landscape. And that was something that - you know, when those white settlers came over, they really stomped out fire. They saw it as evil. So I wanted to include that legend in the book to help people understand, you know, the role of fire in the past and how we need to go back and reexamine how it has been used before to inform how to live on the land in the future, right? Like, the way that we're living on it now isn't sustainable.

SIMON: You capture what the town of Paradise was in a beautiful paragraph. Can I get you to read that?

JOHNSON: Yeah.

(Reading) People were drawn to the hamlet because it was affordable or because it was a little out of the way or because it had small-town charm. It was the kind of place that lined the skyway with more than a thousand full-sized American flags on Memorial Day and allowed a 99-year-old to compete for the title of Chocolate Queen at the annual Chocolate Fest. In April, everyone looked forward to the weekend of Gold Nugget Days, when children competed in the costume contest and teenagers vied for the Miss Gold Nugget crown. Families cheered at the donkey derby and lined lawn chairs along the side of the road to view the parade, parents rubbing sunscreen onto their children's wiggling bodies as they waited for it to depart from the holiday market shopping center.

SIMON: You have a lot of gripping portraits in this book, and I want you to tell us, if you could, about Kevin McKay. He was the school bus driver, bus 963.

JOHNSON: Yeah.

SIMON: He had to drive through a kind of hellscape, didn't he?

JOHNSON: He did. He worked at a Walgreens for a really long time. It was a very stable job. And, you know, the entire time, he kind of felt this itching in the back of his head that he wanted to do something more. And so he had quit his good, well-paying job and got a job as a bus driver at the local school district in Paradise to save money as he was going back to college to get a teaching degree. And so on the morning that the Camp Fire ignited, he got stuck on this bus with two teachers and 22 children, and he had to get them all out of town to safety. And he didn't think they were going to make it. There was fire on either side of the road. The children started falling asleep. And at one point, he had the teachers make a manifest in case the only thing getting pulled out of that bus were bodies.

SIMON: Oh, my God. You have portraits of firefighters and the firefighting, too. And they sometimes have to make terrible choices, don't they, between what they can try to save and what they just have to let burn.

JOHNSON: You know, we see firefighters as the heroes. They come in and save the day. But the way these wildfires are happening in California right now and across the West in general, at a certain point, there's nothing you can do. These firefighters are being sent into situations where they can't fight fire. All they can do is try and save people's lives. And in those cases, you have to let homes burn. You have to let businesses burn because the people are more important. But that's a really, really hard thing, right?

SIMON: Yeah.

JOHNSON: Like, they don't want to see someone's house burned down. That's someone's entire life.

SIMON: I want to ask you a little more about Pacific Gas and Electric, PG&E. They had a history of diverting funds from safety measures into profits, didn't they?

JOHNSON: They did. For those who don't know, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, it is the biggest power provider in the state of California and also just generally in the United States as well. But instead of actually putting money toward safety, doing inspections, making sure their equipment could hold up to storms, things of that nature, they pushed it towards profit.

SIMON: You write about Geisha Williams, the former CEO who resigned. She got a handsome severance package, sold her home in Marin County. How much did she get for that home compared with how much PG&E had to pay out for starting a fire that killed at least 85 people?

JOHNSON: Right. So Geisha Williams sold her house for $4.7 million. And that was more than PG&E actually had to pay for all of the lives that were lost. PG&E was fined $3.48 million.

SIMON: I'd like to ask you about something in your acknowledgments.

JOHNSON: Yeah.

SIMON: You make a point of thanking your therapist. It suggests that this was not just another story to you, was it?

JOHNSON: Yeah. You know, I had been covering fires for a couple of years before I ended up in Paradise. And I think I thought I knew what I would see there that day. And like a lot of other people, it just totally and completely ruined my brain for a long time, to be honest, right? It's not natural to see an entire town burned down. And my therapist helped me get through some of that, because it's difficult living that life and then also going back to San Francisco, where I was at at the time, where everything was neat and clean and perfect and people were complaining about paying an extra dollar for oat milk - you know, juggling that with having seen people lose everything.

SIMON: What's Paradise like now?

JOHNSON: Paradise feels haunted almost. The town is really pushing to rebuild, but you can still tell there's a lot of hurt. And even the people in town still have that sort of glazed-over look in their eyes sometimes, where you know that even though the fire is over for them, it isn't, and it never will be.

SIMON: What do we need to learn from Paradise right now, this weekend?

JOHNSON: I think the biggest thing we can learn is that climate change isn't this thing that is off on the horizon, something that we will confront in 10 years. It's happening right now.

SIMON: Lizzie Johnson - her book, "Paradise: One Town's Struggle To Survive An American Wildfire." Thank you so much for being with us.

JOHNSON: Thank you for having me, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.