- Michael Shields
This episode of Across The Margin: The Podcast presents an interview with Lizzie Johnson, a staff writer for the Washington Post. Previously, Johnson worked at the San Francisco Chronicle, where she reported on fifteen of the deadliest, largest, and most destructive blazes in modern California history, and covered over thirty communities impacted by wildfires. Recently she released a book entitled Paradise: One Town’s Struggle To Survive An American Wildfire— the focus of this episode — which serves as the definitive first hand account of California’s Camp Fire, the nation’s deadliest wildfire in a century. Paradise is a riveting examination of what went wrong and how to avert future tragedies as the climate crisis unfolds.
On November 8, 2018, the people of Paradise, California, awoke to a mottled gray sky and gusty winds. Soon the Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history was upon them, consuming an acre a second. Less than two hours after the fire ignited, the town was engulfed in flames, the terrified residents trapped in their homes and cars. By the next morning, eighty-five people were dead. As a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, Lizzie Johnson was there as the town of Paradise burned. She saw the smoldering rubble of a historic covered bridge and the beloved Black Bear Diner and she stayed long afterward, visiting shelters, hotels, and makeshift camps. Drawing upon her years of on-the-ground reporting, and reams of public records, including 911 calls and testimony from a grand jury investigation, Johnson provides a minute-by-minute account of the Camp Fire, following residents and first responders as they fight to save themselves and their town. We see a young mother fleeing with her newborn; a school bus full of children in search of an escape route; and a group of paramedics, patients, and nurses trapped in a cul-de-sac, fending off the fire with rakes and hoses. In Paradise, Johnson documents this unfolding tragedy with empathy and nuance. But she also investigates the root causes, from runaway climate change to a deeply flawed alert system to Pacific Gas and Electric’s decades-long neglect of critical infrastructure. A cautionary tale for a new era of megafires, Paradise is the gripping story of a town wiped off the map and the determination of its people to rise again. In this episode, host Michael Shields and Lizzie Johnson explore how Climate Change has increased the intensity and size of wildfires throughout the world, how economic factors have increasingly swelled the population in the wildland-urban-interface, the challenges of evacuating the entirety of a town, forest management suppression miscalculations and the need for “controlled” burns, the emotional toll of reporting on tragedies, and much, much more.
This episode concludes with a deeply affecting song by John-Michael Sun, a Camp Fire survivor. Listen to the entirety of the song here.
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