Paradise: One Town’s Struggle to Survive an American Wildfire

Crown. Aug. 2021. 432p. ISBN 9780593136386. $28. SOC SCI
Johnson has written a gripping, shocking, and intimate minute-by-minute account of the deadly Camp Fire that ravaged the Northern California towns of Paradise, Concow, and Magalia in November 2018; it is nearly as tough to read as it is important. This is no insult to debut author Johnson, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. Her writing is eloquent, her storytelling is compelling, and her research and reporting are thorough, as is her empathy. The story she tells, though, is horrific and heartbreaking. She relates in keen detail the chaotic, harrowing evacuation of Paradise—residents on foot and in vehicles, inching out of town through flames—from multiple perspectives: community leaders; medical personnel; a recent retiree trying to rescue two friends as fire descends upon them; a mother evacuating with her newborn son in the car of a stranger whose last name she never learned. Johnson writes about the culpability of Pacific Gas & Electric and its outdated, failing infrastructure. Near the end, Johnson reprints her article about PG&E’s June 2020 sentencing; she weaves into it a list of the fire’s victims, their ages, and where their bodies were found. It is crushing.
VERDICT The definitive story of an American tragedy and a notable cautionary tale of climate change, corporate negligence, and insufficient planning. Highly recommended.
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