Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Three Books That Broke the Reading Drought, Part 3

In parts 1 and 2, I talked about two books that finally ended my reading blahs at the end of last year—Larry McMurtry’s wonderful travelogue Roads and Miles Franklin’s influential feminist novel My Brilliant Career. Next up is a book I didn’t want to even think about.

Fire in Paradise: An American Tragedy
Alastair Gee & Dani Anguiano
(Norton, 2020)

This book sat on my shelf for about a year because I didn’t want to read it. I sort of wanted to grok its content—the story of how the town of Paradise, California, suffered a massive wildfire that basically destroyed it in November 2018. But I also just didn’t want to touch it. My own valley in southern Oregon went through a similar fire in September 2020 that destroyed more than 2,500 residences, killed three people, and left thousands homeless—an experience that, let me tell you, you never really understand until you see it and smell it and listen, horrified, to the police scanner all day and all night while it burns. And I didn’t even lose my home—the people who lost everything had an unimaginably worse experience than I did. Many of my friends and co-workers lost their homes, and I also know people who lost everything in the Paradise fire, which is just a couple of hours south of here. Fire, fear, evacuation notices—in this part of the West, we go though that every summer, and it is so awful that it always makes me question whether it’s a good idea to live here. I didn’t want to relive that night after night by reading a book about it before bedtime.

But a radio journalist friend gave me a copy of Fire in Paradise; her station had interviewed the authors, Alastair Gee and Dani Anguiano, and she said they’d written a compelling story and knew what they were talking about. So I finally took a deep breath and opened it up one night—and wow, what a gripping and enlightening read it turned out to be.

Gee and Anguiano, both reporters for the Guardian, interviewed hundreds of people just after that tragic day in Paradise—residents, city council members, the mayor, firefighters, police officers, and hospital workers. And what they assembled is a multidimensional, minute-by-minute account of the fire as it started in a steep, remote spot the firefighters instantly knew would be trouble, and then as high winds drove the inferno right through the heart of the town, only to swirl around and drive it back over parts that it had missed earlier. In other words, everybody’s nightmare. 

Honestly, if you lived through that fire or one like it, you might not want to read Fire in Paradise. Many times I had to put the book down and catch my breath; it hit much too close to home, too close to everything I’m thinking as I pack up my evacuation boxes at the start of every summer and set them by the front door (because I know people who only had minutes to get out before their houses burned down). But the book also gave me a lot to think about: primarily, how the mayor and town council of Paradise had an evacuation plan in place, much like the one we have here in my town, that divided the city into zones so the emergency office could issue alerts by zone and get people out in a relatively orderly manner and prevent traffic gridlock. And then the fire, whipped by 60-mile-an-hour winds, trashed their plans by raging right through the center of town, pushing everyone out at once. And they ended up with exactly the gridlock everyone had feared, and dozens of people died. At one point in the book, the mayor says the evacuation plan they had actually saved some lives—it was much better than nothing—but there’s simply no way to evacuate a town of 25,000 people all at the same time. We talk about that all the time in my town, which is roughly the same size as Paradise, with an interstate hemming it in on one side and steep mountains on the other, and just two main exit routes—one to the north, one to the south. 

Fire in Paradise doesn’t provide answers or prescriptive advice about wildfires; in fact, the authors don’t go very far into the origins, natural and manmade, of our ever-hotter megafires here in the western U.S. (I think The Big Burn covers that, but I have yet to make it through that book.) They do spend some time delving into PG&E’s tarnished safety record, including the many aging high-voltage power line towers that, like the one that caused the Paradise fire, are overdue for replacement. And the book’s short foray into the tangled, illogical business of public utilities is so fascinating (and horrifying) that it deserves a book of its own. (Are you listening, Michael Lewis? Please write that one.) This is a book that makes me wish I could live to be 500 years old so I’d have time to study all the things I didn’t learn in my youth: forestry, geology, how water systems and electrical utilities work, and so on.

But the most indelible ingredient in Fire in Paradise is the residents who fled the fire and lived to tell about it, including some who miraculously sheltered while the fire burned right over them, and many of whom lost loved ones. Their stories are literally stranger than fiction—I mean, there are moments that are simply incredible, but they actually happened, the kind of thing you can’t just talk about in a casual conversation. Some writer—Fitzgerald?—once said that novels are written about things people don’t talk about at the dinner table. This book is filled with those stories, too intense to share with just anyone. So there’s an intimacy to the book too, these people revealing these hard stories to us. You’re left with a deep empathy for what they went through—and that’s a testament to the way these two authors wove these experiences together with care and respect. I’d read anything they’ve written. This book will stay with me for a long time.