By Ania HullJon Mooallem is a writer-at-large with The New York Times Magazine, and has published articles and feature stories with, among others, The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, Slate, and Mother Jones. He’s the author of two nonfiction books, “This Is Chance!” and “Wild Ones,” with Penguin Random House and recently published the nonfiction collection “Serious Face.” He is experienced and masterful at what he does.
And yet, when Sheila Glaser, his editor at The New York Times Magazine, asked Mooallem to write a story about a small town in California in November 2018, Mooallem felt intimidated and overwhelmed. He was to report on what he called the biggest thing happening in the world at the time: the Camp Fire that had just devastated the community of Paradise, California, a week earlier, and which to this day ranks as the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in the state’s history.
To add to that challenge, Mooallem wasn’t going to be the first journalist to report on the fire so didn’t understand where and how his work would fit in: “I just didn’t really have a handle on why I was doing this, of what my objective should be and what kind of story would add anything to what, even days after that the fire, amazing reporters were already doing.”
Then there was the trepidation about going into a disaster zone, something Mooallem had never done before in his career, and engaging with people who had barely survived and had lost homes, loved ones and a way of life. This, especially, was daunting to him. “You’re catching them at a moment,” he told me, “where they can’t just sit down and talk to you for hours.”
But Glaser reminded him that to tell a story about such a tragedy, even in the face of so many other stories already having been told, was valuable in itself. Mooallem found comfort in this. “We’re just going to hear about this person who experienced something awful,” he said. “And the Camp Fire is not a singular thing. It’s going to happen more. And it has happened more since.” The value is in the telling.
His telling of Paradise is an extraordinary feat of journalism. “We Have Fire Everywhere,” published in July 2019, tells the story of resident Tamra Fisher and the people who helped her. It becomes the story of anyone facing despair and of the community that steps up in support.
Mooallem spoke by phone by phone and email with Storyboard for a Q&A and story annotation about his reporting and writing processes and what reporting on the Camp Fire meant to him. The conversation was edited for length and clarity.
Can you describe your writing process?
I’ve learned to always start writing big features in the late afternoon. It takes the pressure off. Whatever I write at the very beginning of the process is going to seem to me horrendously bad and unsatisfying and fill me with disappointment and dread. I will feel myself in real-time, with every phrase I type, despoiling the piece I’ve been imagining and failing to put what I know and feel into words. So I’d rather do that at, say, 3 p.m., endure that failure for a few hours, then go make dinner and start again the next morning with something on the page. The alternative — which I used to do — was to start writing a feature at the crack of dawn, with an entire day to feel like a failure ahead of me. I hated those days. Ideally, too, I’ll start writing on, like, a Thursday afternoon. Thursday afternoon goes badly. Friday, if I’m lucky, a few successful things are beginning to happen. And then I get two days off! Monday comes around and things start to feel more doable.
In the case of “We Have Fire Everywhere,” I started writing as soon as I got home from my last reporting trip, during which I interviewed the firefighters and a few other people whose stories had intersected with Tamra Fisher’s. I felt like enough information had fallen into place that I could picture the structure. I actually called a friend from the road and told her the entire story on the phone.
I write once I can chart a path from a beginning to an end. That structure can change and there are often big holes that I’ll need to keep reporting out, but it’s the difference between, say, starting to build a house even though you don’t know where the bathroom is going to go and starting to cut and hammer together a bunch of wood not knowing whether you’re building a house or a boat.
How do you determine that structure?
It’s crucial for me to know where I’m heading — to see the story as a straight line. Otherwise I will just write infinitely sideways, if that makes sense. I tend to think about everything tangentially. So if I start writing sentences and don’t know what the overall point is, how those sentences are serving it or don’t have clarity about the next moment that will follow those sentences, I’ll start drifting: burrowing deeper or expanding laterally from what’s important, instead of pushing forward.
I think I have pretty good intuition for structure. I didn’t always, but it’s a muscle that got stronger over time.
As I read “We Have Fire Everywhere,” it felt as though you had predicted the questions I’d have as a reader along the way, not unlike a chess master predicts their opponent’s next move. I’ve heard Storyboard Jacqui Banaszynski refer to it as “reader think.” How do you know when and where within the story a reader will want to know something?
I love this phrase and idea. I don’t know that I even think of the question that way: What does the reader need to know? I think of it more as: I have a compulsive, somewhat destructive need to communicate everything all at once, and that’s impossible, so what is the absolute most I can communicate right now and still make this pleasing to read? That’s not easy for me; I just slowly become more aware of that trouble and more judicious about what to dole out as I go through revisions.
Walk me through your revision process.
The only strategy I know is to patiently sweat over every sentence and grind it out for a preposterous amount of time. I throw my full self at the thing until it’s good. Sometimes, with something long, I will print it out on paper, but I don’t know that it makes a difference for me; it’s just nice to get away from a screen.
I have noticed that, over time, I’ve learned to recognize little idiosyncratic problems I create for myself. For example, I will often go on a few lines or paragraphs too long at the end of a section in early drafts. I can identify that quickly now — Oh, I’m doing that thing — and slash it out, without wasting as much time trying to sniff out what’s gone wrong and experimenting with fixes.
What was the process like once you sent a completed draft of “We Have Fire Everywhere” to your editor?
I just found the email where I turned in the first draft to my editor, Sheila Glaser. It was 21,000 words and included a third storyline of a young man who’d rushed into Paradise to rescue his cat, traversing the fire on foot. He was assumed dead by his family but ultimately wound up being picked up by Tamra and Larry, just after the published version of the story ends. Sheila said to cut this third story. It just wasn’t possible to do that much.
In retrospect, I knew this was the right decision all along. But I didn’t admit that to myself. I was compelled to write it all out anyway; I had it in my head and needed to see it turned into prose. And this way, at least one person — Sheila — got to read that prose and know what happened to him. I earnestly feel this way, even though I also recognize how idiotic it is.
The next version was 15,000 words.
From there, the main narrative stayed intact but the stuff around it changed dramatically as other editors got involved. My early drafts had versions of the explanatory sections on fire in California (the ecology and recent history) and PG&E’s role in the fires, but it did not have the loftier, nut-graffy section at the beginning — “Fisher wasn’t just trapped in a fire; she was trapped in the 21st Century” and in the “How did it end?” conclusion. Editors asked for those. Their sense was that we had to zoom out from this very claustrophobic narrative and hammer home its wider significance, and that the prose should rise to that ambition stylistically. I wasn’t sure at the time but they were a thousand percent right.
On the other hand, I had to argue quite strongly to keep the material about PG&E toward the end in the piece. The top editors wanted to cut it. They felt that kind of reporting and that kind of information didn’t fit tonally with the rest of the story. I found this a little deflating, because that was the section where I felt like I’d done real journalism — meaning journalism in a more righteous and public-service-oriented sense. At the time, I wasn’t quite convinced there was value in presenting purely a disaster narrative like this. I thought it was crucial to understanding the issue and felt some obligation to spell out both PG&E’s culpability and the somewhat impossible situation they found themselves in. I didn’t want to sacrifice it to prioritize aesthetics or literary pleasure.
How did you prepare yourself and go about interviewing sources who had just been through this kind of extreme trauma?
I didn’t have a toolkit for that. All I could do was be as kind and patient and human as possible, and demonstrate that I didn’t feel entitled to any of their time or cooperation. I could only ask.
As for me, it wasn’t good. Doing this story affected me deeply and still does. “Trauma” is the only word I know for it, and I hope I can use it without taking anything away from the trauma of people who’ve actually lived through wildfires from other journalists who cover these disasters more directly. Still throwing my mind and my imagination so deeply into the experiences of the people in this piece made me hypervigilant about fire in ways I’m a little too embarrassed to go into. It made this kind of disaster real to me.
ANNOTATION: Storyboard’s questions are in red; Mooallem’s answers in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the HIDE ANNOTATION button in the top right menu of your c0mputer or at the top of your mobile device.
For eight hours last fall, Paradise, Calif., became a zone at the limits of
the American imagination—and a preview of the American future
by Jon Mooallem
July 31, 2019
The fire was already growing at a rate of one football field per second when Tamra Fisher woke up on the edge of Paradise, Calif., feeling that her life was no longer insurmountably strenuous or unpleasant and that she might be up to the challenge of living it again. When we spoke, you said that you could have started the story anywhere. Why did you choose to start it with Tamra Fisher in her garden? She was the main character. We are following her path through the fire and through that day. So, it seemed like a no-brainer to start with her, where her story starts. She was 49 and had spent almost all of those years on the Ridge—the sweeping incline, in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada, on which Paradise and several tinier, unincorporated communities sit. Fisher moved to the Ridge as a child, married at 16, then raised four children of her own, working 70-hour-plus weeks caring for disabled adults and the elderly. Paradise had attracted working-class retirees from around California since the 1970s and was beginning to draw in younger families for the same reasons. The town was quiet and affordable, free of the big-box stores and traffic that addled the city of Chico in the valley below. It still brimmed with the towering pine trees that first made the community viable more than a century ago. The initial settlement was poor and minuscule—“Poverty Ridge,” some called it—until a new logging railroad was built through the town in 1904 by a company felling timber farther uphill. This was the Diamond Match Company. The trees of Paradise made for perfect matchsticks. This last sentence is just perfect, and so evocative. Why are the latter two sentences so short compared to the ones before that? I think, like a lot of writers, I hear rhythms of prose in my head. Sometimes you know you need a long sentence and sometimes you know you need a short one.
Like many people who grow up in small communities, Fisher regarded her hometown with affection but also exhaustion. All her life, she dreamed of leaving and seeing other parts of the world, not to escape Paradise but so that she could return with renewed appreciation for it. But as the years wore on, she worried that she’d missed her chance. There had been too many tribulations and not enough money. She was trapped.
Then again, who knew? That fall, Fisher was suspended in a wide-open and recuperative limbo, having finally ended a five-year relationship with a man who, she said, conned her financially, isolated her from her family and seized on her diagnoses of depression and a mood disorder to make her feel crazy and sick and insist that she go on disability. “What I thought was love,” she said, “was me trying to buy love and him stealing from me.” But now, a fuller, bigger life seemed possible. She’d tried community college for a semester. And just recently, she got together with Andy, a big-hearted baker for the Chico public-school system, who slipped out of her bed earlier that Thursday morning to drive down the hill to work. Fisher was feeling grounded again: happy. It was odd to say the word, but it must have been true because there she was, getting out of bed at 8 a.m.—early for her—energetically and without resentment, to take her two miniature schnauzers and Andy’s lumbering old mutt into the yard to pee.
She stepped out in her slippers and the oversize sweatshirt she slept in. She smelled smoke. The sky overhead was still faintly blue in spots, but a brown fog, forced in by a hard wind, was rapidly smothering it. “I’ve been here so long, it didn’t even faze me,” Fisher said. Small wildfires erupted in the canyons on either side of Paradise every year. But then the wind gusted sharply and a three-inch piece of burned bark floated lazily toward her through the air like a demonic moth. Fisher opened her hand and caught it. Bits of it crumbled in her palm like charcoal. She took a picture and texted it to her sister Cindy Christensen. “WTF is happening,” she wrote.
Cindy knew about wildfires. In fact, she’d spent every summer and fall fixated on fire since the “fire siege” of 2008, when Paradise was threatened by two blazes, one in each of the canyons alongside it. One morning, as the Humboldt Fire approached from the east, the town ordered more than 9,000 people to evacuate as a precaution, Cindy among them. But when Cindy pulled out of her neighborhood, she instantly hit gridlock. An investigation determined that it took nearly three hours for most residents to drive the 11 miles downhill.
Sitting in traffic that morning, Cindy felt viscerally unsafe. Ever since then, she obsessively tracked the daily indicators of high-fire danger on the TV weather reports and with apps on her phone. “It consumed me,” Cindy said. She spent many nights, unable to sleep, listening to the wind plow out of the canyon and batter her roof. Many days, she refused to leave home, worried a fire might blow through her neighborhood before she could return for her pets. She didn’t just sign up to get the county’s emergency alerts on her phone; she bought her own police scanner.
It pained Tamra to see her sister fall apart every fire season; Cindy seemed irrational—possessed. It was hard to take her seriously. “That’s just Cindy,” Tamra would say. Now, standing with her phone in one hand and the charred bark in the other, Tamra needed Cindy to be Cindy and tell her what to do.
“Evacuate,” Cindy wrote back.
“Answer me!!” Tamra texted again. “It’s raining ash and bark.” Neither realized that some texts weren’t being received by the other. Then the power went out, and Tamra, who had dropped her cellular plan to save money and could only use her phone with Wi-Fi, was cut off from communicating with anyone.
“Leave, T. Paradise is on fire,” Cindy was texting her. “Leave!!”
By then, Cindy was almost off the Ridge, bawling in her car from the stress and dread. Forty-five minutes earlier, she learned that a fire had sparked northeast of town, and she immediately didn’t like the scenario taking shape. The relative humidity that morning, the wind speed and direction, which would propel the fire straight toward Paradise—it was all very bad. “In my mind, I pictured exactly what happened,” she explained. She’d spent years picturing it, in fact. She left right away.
This time, there was no traffic; Cindy says she saw only two other cars the whole way down. Later, she spotted her home in aerial footage of Paradise on the local news. Her aboveground swimming pool was unmistakable. Nearly everything else had burned into a ghostly black smudge. Why did you decide to use these very last few details — a foreshadowing of sorts — as you close your lede? These are instinctual decisions, but if I had to intellectualize it, I’d say it felt appropriate to bring Cindy’s story to a close somehow here — to explain that she got out but lost nearly everything. I didn’t want to just leave her there, suspended in time.
❈ ❈ ❈
By the time Fisher got in her yellow Volkswagen, the sky had transformed again: It was somehow both shrouded and glowing. Many other residents had learned to keep a “go bag” packed by the door, with water, medications and copies of important documents; a woman from the local Fire Safe Council, a volunteer known affectionately as the Bag Lady, held frequent workshops demonstrating how to pack one. But Fisher was indecisive and moving inefficiently. It had taken her nearly 40 minutes to commit to leaving, wrangle the dogs and scramble to grab a few haphazard possessions.
It was now 8:45. So many calls were being placed to 911 that a dispatcher interrupted one man reporting a fire alongside Skyway Road—the busiest street in Paradise and the town’s primary evacuation route—with a terse, “Yeah, sir, we have fire everywhere.” Your editor chose this very quote to use as the story’s title. It is superb. Did you have your own working title for the story? And does “We Have Fire Everywhere” work for you? I never give my stories working titles. I just don’t think to do it. This works for me as a headline because it’s so simple and stark, and particularly because — here, in context — you recognize that it was such an off-handed comment. Something about the dissonance between the way it’s said in the moment and its bleak and total explanatory power is very nice. Officials had started issuing evacuation orders about an hour earlier; Fisher’s neighborhood was among those told to clear out first. Her street was plugged with cars. A thick line of them crept forward at the end of her driveway.
There are five routes out of Paradise. The three major ones spread south like the legs of a tripod passing through the heart of town and continuing downhill toward Chico and the valley below. The simile of a tripod is striking and unusual. It also helps ground the reader spatially. When did it come to you? And why a tripod instead of, say, a fork? I struggled for a while, trying to give a reader what they’d need to visualize this. The story ultimately ran with a map, but I felt it was my responsibility to do as much as I could in writing. It just looked like a tripod to me, given the angle at which the streets are arrayed. Fisher lived in the northern part of town, on the easternmost leg of the tripod, Pentz Road; she rented a bedroom from a woman who worked at a nursing home in town. Why did you choose to introduce these details about Fisher’s living arrangement here rather than earlier, maybe even in the first scene? I honestly can’t say. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’d tried to work it in earlier and just felt it clunking up the momentum. It baffled her to see that all the cars in front of her house were heading north on Pentz, cramming themselves away from the center of Paradise, away from the valley, and further uphill. The opposite lane, meanwhile, was totally empty. It seemed obvious to Fisher that, if the fire was approaching from somewhere in the canyon behind her house, there would be plenty of Paradise left in which to safely wait it out. So she pushed across the traffic, into the empty lane. But she barely went 100 yards before a driver sitting in the jam alongside her rolled down his window and explained that Pentz was blocked up ahead.
“Great,” Fisher muttered. As she turned around and took her place in line, she wished the man good luck.
“You, too,” he said.
She was recording everything on her phone, compelled by some instinct she would strain to make sense of later. Here it seems you foreshadow that Fisher will survive the Camp Fire. Why did you decide to let your readers know this here, rather than a little later or even near the end? That wasn’t the intention behind this passage for me. For me, this was a way to communicate how I knew all this stuff I was saying and give you confidence to trust me as the story moves forward and the details become more extreme. This was a way to spell out my reporting methods and credibility while still keeping the narrative somewhat inside Tamra’s experience. She wanted people to know what happened to her and presumed, nonsensically, that her phone would survive even if she didn’t. Maybe, too, she wanted someone to be with her while it happened. Her phone created the illusion of an audience; it was the best she could do.
It was suddenly much darker. Everyone had their headlights on. The sky was blood red in places but waning into absolute black. The smoke column was collapsing on them: The plume from the wildfire had billowed upward until, at about 35,000 feet, it froze, became heavier, and fell earthward again. Powerful image. What source materials did you use to describe this plume of smoke? Also, why did you choose not to use a simile here as you often do elsewhere? This is me basically parroting back how firefighter John Jessen described it to me. I liked the way he said it. It’s an odd phenomenon that was completely unfamiliar to me — a smoke column rising then collapsing. Best not to overcomplicate its description by comparing it to something else. Outside Fisher’s passenger-side window, the wind snapped an American flag in someone’s yard so relentlessly that it seemed to be rippling under the force of some machine. Then, a mammoth gust kicked up, spattering the street with pine needles. It sounded like a rainstorm and, when it subsided, bright orange embers appeared beside Fisher’s car: trails of pinhole lights, like fairies, skittering low over the shoulder, chasing each other out of the dry leaves, then capering off and vanishing in front lawns. There is so much poetry in this line. Why did you decide to personify the ambers? And why a fairy-tale simile? I actually don’t like this line at all. It seems at least one degree overdone to me.
Fisher noticed a minivan struggling to merge just ahead—people weren’t letting the driver in. She stopped to let it through, then suddenly screamed: “Oh, my God! There’s a fire!” She yelled it again, out her window, as though she worried she were the only one seeing it: the tremendous box of bright, anarchic flame where there used to be a home. struggling Why did you choose to write “Fisher noticed a van struggling” rather than, say, “A van struggled to merge…”? Why did you choose to use Fisher as a camera of sorts? Intuitively it makes sense: she is our camera. She is how we know this, and we are seeing it through her eyes.
It was 9:13 a.m. Fisher had been in her car for nearly half an hour and traveled altogether nowhere; in fact, the burning house appeared to be only a few doors down from her own. There was a second structure aflame now. The fires were multiplying rapidly.
“I don’t want to die!” Fisher shouted. The mood had shifted. People started honking. Fisher honked, too. She began to sob and scream, to open her car door and lean her head out, asking what she should do. Later, she felt embarrassed. She would see so many YouTube videos of people calmly piloting their cars through the flames. There was one guy who went viral, singing to his 3-year-old daughter as he honked and swerved, commenting on the encroaching inferno as though it were an interactive exhibit at a science museum. (“Be careful with that fire!” the girl says adorably. The father replies, “I’m going to stay away from it, O.K.?”) It didn’t make sense to Fisher that she would be the only person screaming. Even the three dogs with her were silent, though two of them were deaf and mostly blind and the third was shivering, eyes locked open, too shocked to make a sound. “I’m scared!” Fisher shouted. “Somebody!”
“O.K., calm down,” a voice called. The person urged her to turn around again. She did and suddenly, still crying wildly, found herself shooting south again, through the other, wide-open lane of Pentz, following a white truck with a Butte County Fire Department decal on it. She tailed the fireman intently, coasting past one burning house after another. Some were being steadily, evenly devoured; others angrily disgorged flames straight up from their roofs. Fisher knew the people who lived in many of these houses—this was her neighborhood. “This is Pentz Road!” she yelled as she drove. “These are people’s homes.” Then added: “I’m sorry. I am so sorry!”
When she got to the corner of Pearson Road, a major east-west artery, she saw someone directing cars to take the right turn, where she and the fireman found they could accelerate even more, winding along S-curves through a wooded area that was almost entirely aflame. Fires speckled the slopes along Pearson so that, in the dark, the hillside looked like a lava flow. “It’s so hot,” Fisher said. “Keep going! Keep going!” But then, they shot around another curve and the fireman’s brake lights came on. They had hit a wall of cars, across both lanes.
“No!” Fisher yowled. “What did I do?”
She was silent for a moment. Then something started beeping. It was the low-fuel alert. She was almost out of gas, though it ultimately wouldn’t matter. Moments later, her car caught fire.
Afterward, you could feel your mind grinding against what happened, desperate to whittle it down into a simple explanation of what went wrong, who should be blamed, what could be learned. What a fantastic example of “reader think!” As I read “Moments later, her car caught fire” (an incredible sentence), I felt the need to know, right away, how this disastrous fire in Paradise had come to be. How did you know what your readers would want to know after you mention Fisher’s car catching fire? Don’t know! But glad it worked. There were many credible answers, specific mistakes to call out. But it was easy to worry that, given the scale of this particular disaster, the principal takeaways might be only humility and terror.
From the start, the Camp Fire was driven by an almost vengeful-seeming confluence of circumstances, many of which had been nudged into alignment by climate change. Paradise had prepared for disasters. But it had prepared merely for disasters, and this was something else. In a matter of hours, the town’s roads were swamped, its emergency plans outstripped. Nine of every 10 homes were destroyed and at least 85 people were dead. Many were elderly, some were incinerated in their cars while trying to flee and others apparently never made it that far.
It was all more evidence that the natural world was warping, outpacing our capacity to prepare for, or even conceive of, the magnitude of disaster that such a disordered earth can produce. We live with an unspoken assumption that the planet is generally survivable, that its tantrums are infrequent and, while menacing, can be plotted along some hazy, existentially tolerable bell curve. But the stability that American society was built around for generations appears to be eroding. That stability was always an illusion; wherever you live, you live with risk—just at some emotional and cognitive remove. Now, those risks are ratcheting up. Nature is increasingly finding a foothold in the unimaginable: what’s not just unprecedented but also hopelessly far beyond what we’ve seen. This is a realm beyond disaster, where catastrophes live. Fisher wasn’t just trapped in a fire; she was trapped in the 21st century. This entire paragraph reads like the heart of the story and its universality — what the story is really about. I presume, perhaps incorrectly, that it’s the story’s nut graf. If it is, why did you choose to place it this far into the story? And if it’s not, which part did you mean to be the nut graf? I didn’t have a nut graf. For some reason, it never occurred to me to write one. I thought we were just telling someone’s story and the broader significance would be obvious. I wrote this at the direction of either Jake Silverstein or Bill Wasik (editors) a few days before it closed. Hemingway said, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” If anything, this sentence here (“Fisher wasn’t just trapped in a fire; she was trapped in the 21st century.”) is one such sentence. It sums up not only Fisher’s predicament but also everyone else’s on this planet. How/when/where did it come to you? Did it influence the way you wrote the rest of the narrative or the way you revised the story? This was written at the very end of the process. It was probably easier for me to write it then because my head was so deep in the story. I would never be able to write something so clear, succinct and explanatory — something from this elevation, looking down — at the beginning of the process. My mind just doesn’t see things that way.
By way of analogy, Paradise’s emergency-operations coordinator, Jim Broshears, later described giving fire-safety tutorials at elementary schools, back when he was the town’s fire chief, teaching second and third graders that if there’s fire at their bedroom door, they should go out the window, and vice versa. “Inevitably,” Broshears told me, “there’s the kid who goes, ‘What if there’s fire at the door and the window?’” And no matter what alternative Broshears provided, the kid could always push the story line one step further.
“At some point, they’ve painted you into a corner and, well, do I tell an 8-year-old kid, ‘In that case, you’re going to die?’ Do you tell a community, ‘If this particular scenario hits, a bunch of you are going to die?’ Is that appropriate? I don’t know the answer.” He added, “I think that people are going to conclude that now.” Fantastic transition between two paragraphs. Also, “a bunch of you are going to die” reads a little like a tiny and quick red herring — it definitely got me very nervous about Fisher’s fate. Why did you decide to end on this particular quote by Borshears before bringing us back to Fisher’s burning car? | I suppose this bit from Broshears would have been masquerading as my nut graf in earlier drafts. To me, it drove toward the same point as the previous passage, just never got all the way there and said it. So when I added that other material, this bumped down to the end of the section—like a little tag, or anecdote, animating the idea I’ve just stated directly.
❈ ❈ ❈
Fisher saw the first flames skitter in the depression where her windshield met the hood. She opened her car door again and leaned her head out. Embers burned tiny holes in her leggings. She was yelling, asking if anyone had water. A contractor in a pickup behind her hollered: “You don’t need water. You need to get in my truck.” He beckoned her and all her animals over.
Fisher wedged herself among the tools and paperwork scattered on the man’s front seat, two dogs on top of her and the largest at her feet. As they inched forward, she took a picture of her burning car and was crushed to realize that she had just abandoned the few possessions she’d managed to save, including the ashes of her big brother, Larry, who, 10 years earlier, died suddenly in his sleep.
“I’m Tamra,” she told the man driving.
“I’m Larry,” he said.
The coincidence was too much: Fisher started crying again.
Larry Laczko wore sleek, black-rimmed glasses and a San Francisco Giants cap and seemed, to Fisher, almost preternaturally subdued, speaking with the slow resignation of a man enduring ordinary traffic on an ordinary Thursday morning. From here on, and for a while, we will be in close psychic distance to Laczko — Gardner’s “psychic distance,” that is — and quite removed from Fisher. Why did you choose to change POVs even with Fisher in the car with Laczko? This was the appeal of the story to me, once I had the reporting: a chance to follow Tamra, then sweep in the interiority of the people she crosses paths with, too. Sort of leapfrog between consciousnesses. It’s not panoramic, but it’s something like panoramic, since you’re getting the panorama one individual at a time. Laczko and his wife lived on the Ridge for 15 years, then migrated to Chico in 2010, after raising their two kids. For years, Laczko worked at Intel, managing 60 employees, traveling constantly. Then, one Saturday, his wife told him to clean the windows of their home in Paradise—and to clean them well this time. Laczko did some research, geeked out a little and wound up ordering a set of professional-grade tools from one of the oldest window-washing supply companies in the United States. His wife was pleased. Soon, he was washing windows every weekend, toddling around the Ridge with his tools, getting to know his neighbors and friends of friends. “I liked the work, the instant gratification of a dirty window turning clean,” Laczko explained, “but it was the interaction with people that I loved.” That was 16 years ago. He quit his job and has run his own window-washing company ever since.
Laczko was on Pearson Road by chance—or because of his own stupidity. In retrospect, he conceded, either assessment was fair. His mother-in-law lived in Quail Trails Village, a nearby mobile-home and R.V. park. She was 88 and used a walker. Laczko’s wife, who was nearby that morning, had already got her out. But Laczko wanted to be helpful. He recently installed an automatic lift chair for his mother-in-law and remembered how, after the 2008 evacuation, many people wound up displaced from the Ridge for days; it would be nice for his mother-in-law to have that chair. So he drove up the hill and cut across on Pearson, only to be turned around by police. Backtracking, he smacked into the traffic that had formed behind him: a blockade of cars, barely moving and every so often, as with Fisher’s Volkswagen, suddenly sprouting into flame.
When Fisher climbed into Laczko’s truck, the seriousness of his predicament was only beginning to catch up with him. What sounded to Fisher like extraordinary calmness was actually extraordinary focus: He was scanning his surroundings, updating his map of everything that was on fire around him—that tree; the plastic fender of that S.U.V.—while also taking a mental inventory of the back of his pickup, gauging how likely each item was to catch. How did you verify this? Tamra told me he sounded extraordinarily calm, and Larry told me he absolutely was not and described doing this. I don’t know how to verify what was going on in his head beyond that.
“We’re getting out of here,” Laczko told Fisher. He projected enough confidence that he reassured himself, just slightly, as well.
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But clearly he and Fisher were stuck. Thousands of people were, on choked roadways all over the Ridge, each sealed in his or her own saga of agony, terror, courage or despair. It was like the 2008 evacuations, but far more serious—the gridlock, cinched tighter; the danger, exponentially more acute—and also harder to stomach, given all the focus on avoiding those problems in the 10 years since.
After the 2008 fires, the county created a fifth route off the Ridge, paving an old gravel road that wound through mountains to the north. Paradise vigorously revamped and expanded the emergency plans it had in place. The town was carved into 14 evacuation zones; these were reorganized to better stagger the flow of cars. Paradise introduced the idea of “contraflow,” whereby traffic could be sent in a single direction across all lanes of a given street if necessary. Maps and instructions were mailed to residents regularly. There were evacuation drills, annual wildfire-preparedness events and other, more meticulous layers of internal planning too. Paradise’s Wildland Fire Traffic Control Plan identified, for example, 12 “priority intersections” where problems might arise for drivers leaving each evacuation zone and stipulated how many orange cones or human flaggers would ideally be dispatched to each.
“The more you study the Camp Fire,” says Thomas Cova, a University of Utah geographer who has analyzed wildfire evacuations for 25 years, “the more you think: This could have been way worse. Way worse.” Cova called Paradise “one of the most prepared communities in the state.” A recent USA Today-California Network investigation found that only six of California’s 27 communities at highest risk for fire had robust and publicly available evacuation plans.
One architect of Paradise’s planning was Jim Broshears, who had spent the bulk of his 47-year career as an emergency planner and firefighter struggling to mitigate his community’s idiosyncratically high risk of disaster. After the Camp Fire, Broshears confessed that, in his mind, the upper limit of harrowing scenarios against which he’d been defending Paradise was the 1991 Tunnel Fire in the Oakland hills—a wildfire that consumed more than 2,900 structures and killed 25 people: Did Jim Broshears open up easily about this? Yes. I admired him for that enormously. “I’ll be honest,” he told me, “we simply didn’t see it being much worse than that.” You rarely refer to yourself in this story. Why did you choose to say “he told me” (instead of “he said”) here? I don’t know that one or the other has a lot of weight for me here, except rhythmically. Maybe on a subconscious level you need to know who he’s confessing to? And it also sets up the next moment, which happened in physical space between the two of us. Recently, Broshears showed me a copy of the Traffic Control Plan in a big, thick binder and said, with admirable directness, “It mostly didn’t work.” Then he clacked the binder shut and insisted, “That is still going to work 98 percent of the time, though.”
The Los Angeles Times and other newspapers would later dig up many city planning mistakes and communication failures that appeared to compound the devastation on the morning of Nov. 8. The core of the problem was that there just wasn’t any time. The fire was moving so astonishingly fast that, only a few minutes after Paradise started evacuating its first zones, it was obvious the entire community would have to be cleared.
There was no plan for evacuating all 27,000 residents of Paradise at once. “I don’t think it’s physically possible,” Paradise’s mayor, Jody Jones, told me. For a town that size to build enough additional lanes of roadway to make it possible, she added, would have seemed preposterous and like a waste of taxpayer money had anyone proposed it. Our communities, as they currently exist, were planned and built primarily to be lived in, not escaped. Fully prioritizing evacuation could mean ripping them apart. This is one of the focal points of the story, at least in my understanding of it. Is this your own conclusion or are you paraphrasing Jody Jones? I am paraphrasing Jones and also elaborating further on her argument based on having heard the same reasoning from other experts.
Paradise evolved without any genuine planning at all: Three adjacent communities just kept expanding until they merged. This produced a town of tangled side streets and poorly connected neighborhoods, often with a single outlet and many dead ends. “In towns all up and down the Sierra, we’ve got the same pattern,” says Zeke Lunder of Deer Creek Resources, which often contracts with the state on wildfire-mapping projects. “I think it’s inevitable that this will happen again.”
That morning in Paradise, streets were blocked by fallen trees, disabled cars or even fire blowing crosswise across them. Flaming roadside vegetation slowed or halted traffic on major evacuation routes like Skyway so that many of the cross streets that fed them, like Pearson, backed up, penning other drivers defenselessly into the side streets that fed them.
Just ahead of Fisher and Laczko, a woman named Lorena Rodriguez watched flames absorb the space around her car. She reached for her phone to tell her children goodbye, but then she reconsidered, worried the memory of her frightened voice would permit her kids to more vividly imagine her burning alive and keep imagining it for the rest of their lives. This enraged Rodriguez—that she had been put in a position to have such a thought. So she decided to run, sprinting in a pair of Danskos, threading the lanes of idling vehicles and moving faster on foot than all of them. She kept expecting to find some obstacle blocking the road, a reason for the traffic, but all she saw was more cars.
Rodriguez ran for two and a half miles, all the way west on Pearson until she reached Skyway. She says the street was bumper to bumper most of the way, the vehicles alongside her perfectly still. It was as if time had stopped for everyone but her.
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Fisher was thinking about her father, a former fire captain who was protective to the point of pitilessness. To teach his little girls not to play with matches, he showed them gruesome photographs of bodies extracted from houses that burned down. What an incredible detail to find during your research — like a full-circle coincidence. Did you learn this from Fisher or from Cindy, her sister? Tamra told me this.
Those pictures had been flashing through Fisher’s mind all morning. Now, on Pearson Road, she sensed she was inside one. She knew there had to be people dying around her and Laczko: good people who wanted to live just as much as she did—surely, who wanted it more.
Fisher inhaled deeply to rein in her crying and told Laczko: “I gotta say something. I’ve tried to kill myself multiple times, and now, I’m scared.” You go back to this same moment several paragraphs down after introducing Joe Kennedy. This here, and the mention of Fisher’s confession after Kennedy’s introduction, feel like an anchor-point for parallel narrative threads in the story. Why did you decide to use this moment and Fisher’s confession about having attempted suicide as the anchor point? Why not pick another moment? I didn’t think of it that way. I just thought, later, you might need to be reminded where and when they were. It was true. She felt guilty about it. She also knew, in that moment, that she wanted to live.
It had been all of 10 minutes since Laczko waved Fisher into his truck. While some people might have recoiled from a stranger making this kind of admission, Laczko didn’t pass judgment or see Fisher as a burden. As a kid, he went to parochial school, though the faith never took; he asked too many questions. Still, he liked the way his wife talked about spirituality, not God so much as a form of godliness that arises whenever two human beings connect. In that moment, he told me, his only thought was, This person needs to talk, and I can certainly listen.
After getting turned around on Pearson, Laczko instantly felt deflated—and then, a little foolish too. He was starting to reprimand himself for driving into a fire. For what? A chair?
Fisher, meanwhile, was exhausted, having so far shouldered the responsibility for her survival alone all morning. “I just wanted to be with somebody,” she explained.
For Laczko, “Something clicked—now I had someone to be responsible for.”
They were together now, but still trapped, and the windows of Laczko’s truck were getting hotter. Until then, the fires blooming erratically around Paradise were spot fires, birthed from embers that the wildfire sprayed ahead of itself as it grew. Now an impregnable riot of heat and flame was cresting the hillside under Pearson Road. This was the fire itself. This last sentence is so short, compared to the other ones around, but also so powerful and to the point. In it you make the fire seem as though it were a wild beast everyone had so far been fleeing but had not yet seen. Could you describe how this sentence came to be? It’s a rhythmic thing. The short sentences emphasizes the horror. I do like this idea of the fire as a living monster. You’re making me realize I must have subconsciously thought of it that way.
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There’s a dismaying randomness to how a megafire can start: What a transition! This is also the first time you use the term “megafire.” Why didn’t you use this term before? And why will you use it only two more times in the story if this is what the Camp Fire actually was? I honestly don’t know. The tire on a trailer goes flat and scrapes against the pavement, producing sparks; the D.I.Y. wiring job on someone’s hot tub melts. (These were the causes of the 2018 Carr and 2015 Valley fires, respectively. More than 300,000 acres burned, combined.) But by now, there is also a feeling of predictability: In 2017, for example, 17 of 21 major fires in California were started accidentally by equipment owned by Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), which, as California’s largest electrical utility, is in the precarious business of shooting electricity through 175,000 miles of live wire, stitched across an increasingly flammable state. “Flammable state” is such an evocative expression. When in the writing or revision process did you compose this phrase? I’m not sure. You just type words, you know? And if they’re not good, you delete them and type different ones. I hope that does not seem like a rude answer. Like I said on the phone, it’s a huge honor and quite humbling to be read with such closeness and curiosity. And yet, in the end, a lot of what I’m doing — and especially on the level of sentences or particular phrases — is instinctual. I think it would be dishonest and do a disservice to other writers to pretend, in retrospect, that I had some more methodical approach or more insightful, intellectual command over the process. For me, it’s just a lot of trying and trying and trying until a certain moment feels right. Under state law, the company may be liable for damage from those fires, whether or not the initial spark resulted from its negligence. And so, PG&E found itself looking for ways to adapt.
Two days before the Camp Fire, as horrendously blustery and dry conditions began settling on the Ridge and the risk of fire turned severe, PG&E began warning 70,000 of its electricity customers in the area, including the entire town of Paradise, that it might shut off their power as a precaution. This was one of the new tactics that the company had adopted—a “last resort,” PG&E called it: In periods of extreme fire danger, if weather conditions aligned to make any accidental spark potentially calamitous, PG&E was prepared to flip the switch, preventively cutting the electricity from its lines. Life would go dark, maybe for days—whatever it took. It was clear that the unforgiving environment in which PG&E had been operating for the last few years was, as the company put it, California’s “new normal.”
Wildfires have always remade California’s landscape. Historically, they were sparked by lightning, switching on haphazardly to sweep forests of their dead and declining vegetation and prime them for new, healthier growth. Noticing this cycle—the natural “fire regimes” at work—Native Americans mimicked it, lighting targeted fires to engineer areas for better foraging and hunting. But white settlers were oblivious to nature’s fire regimes; when blazes sprung up around their towns, they stamped them out.
Those towns grew into cities; the land around them, suburbs. More than a century of fire suppression left the ecosystems abutting them misshapen and dysfunctional. To set things right, the maintenance once performed naturally by fire would have to be conducted by state and federal bureaucracies, timber companies, private citizens and all the other entities through whose jurisdictions that land splinters. The approach has been feeble and piecemeal, says William Stewart, a co-director of Berkeley Forests at the University of California, Berkeley: “Little pinpricks of fuel reduction on the landscape.” We effectively turned nature into another colossal infrastructure project and endlessly deferred its maintenance.
Then came climate change. Summers in Northern California are now 2.5 degrees hotter than they were in the early 1970s, speeding up evaporation and baking the forests dry. Nine of the 10 largest fires in state history, since record-keeping started in 1932, have happened in the last 16 years. Ten of the 20 most destructive fires occurred in the last four; eight in the last two. California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, expects that these trends will only get worse. It’s possible that we’ve entered an era of “megafires” and “megadisturbances,” the agency noted in its 2018 Strategic Fire Plan. And these fires are no longer restricted to the summer and early fall: “Climate change has rendered the term ‘fire season’ obsolete.”
Even deep into last fall, much of the landscape still seemed restless, eager to burn. [Here and there, you give nature human characteristics, emotions, and, in this case, even desires. How did you compose this description of the landscape?] [I guess I had this idea of the fire/nature as a living organism in my head somewhere. It was just a sense I had from the way people talked about it.] A bout of heavy rains that spring produced a record growth of grasses around the Ridge—the fastest-burning fuels in a landscape. But then the rain stopped. By the time of the Camp Fire, in November, there hadn’t been any significant precipitation since late May, and July had been California’s hottest month on record: All that vegetation dried out. “Everything is here,” explained a veteran wild-land firefighter named Jon Paul. “All you need is ignition.”
The Camp Fire glinted into existence around 6:15 that Thursday morning. Cal Fire hasn’t yet released its full investigation, but the available evidence indicates that a hook on a PG&E electrical tower near the community of Pulga snapped, allowing a wire to spring free. The wire flapped against the skeletal metal tower, throwing sparks into the wind, most likely for a fraction of a second before the system’s safety controls could have flipped. Still, it was enough: The sparks started a fire; the fire spread.
In the end, PG&E chose not to de-energize its lines. Even with warm, dry air gushing through the canyon early that morning, blowing 30 miles per hour and gusting up to 51, the company claimed that conditions never reached the thresholds it had determined would necessitate a shut-off. “That revealed a failure of imagination on PG&E’s part,” says Michael Wara, who directs the Climate and Energy Policy Program at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. PG&E was largely forced into the position of having to shut off people’s power in the first place, Wara argues, because it failed for decades to invest in the kind of maintenance and innovation that would allow its infrastructure to stand up to more hostile conditions, as climate change gradually exacerbated the overall risk. But now, Wara said, the decision to keep operating that morning suggested that the company still hadn’t fully accepted the kind of resoluteness this new reality demanded. Three weeks earlier, PG&E instituted its first, and ultimately only, shutdown of the 2018 fire season, cutting electricity during a windstorm to nearly 60,000 customers in seven counties. It took two days to restore everyone’s power; citizens and local governments fumed. “One has to wonder,” Wara says, “if the negative publicity and pushback PG&E received influenced decision making on the day of the Camp Fire.” (“We will not speculate on past events,” a PG&E spokesman said in an email. “The devastating wildfires of the past two years have made it clear that more must be done, and with greater urgency, to adapt and address the issue.”)
An even starker truth: It probably wouldn’t have mattered. The lines at that particular tower in Pulga wouldn’t have been included in a shut-off that morning anyway; PG&E’s protocols at the time appeared not to consider such high-voltage transmission lines a severe risk. A shutdown, however, would have de-energized other lower-voltage lines a few miles west of the tower, where, shortly after the first fire started, some vegetation, most likely a tree branch, blew into the equipment and triggered a second blaze. How did you verify this? Who were the experts you spoke to? I spent some time with higher-level PG&E employees who actually work in the area and they walked me through their sense of the scenario. But I believe a lot of this was also in PG&E’s initial report. It was confirmed in their final report, which came out after the story was published, but before I reprinted it in my book. I was able to shore up this passage and add further details in “Serious Face.”
In a preliminary report, Cal Fire’s investigators seemed to regard this subsequent event as negligible, however. Within 30 minutes of igniting, the second fire had been consumed by the first, which was ripping through a fast-burning landscape, powered forward by its own metabolism and pushed by the wind. It had advanced four miles and was already swallowing the small town of Concow. The Camp Fire was moving too fast to be fought. How fast must a fire be for it to be too fast to be fought? Why did you choose not to include any technical details here? “Too fast to be fought” is subjective, of course, but they weren’t even able to mobilize their resources at that point.
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“It was pretty much complete chaos,” Joe Kennedy said. Kennedy is a Cal Fire heavy-equipment operator based in Nevada City, southeast of Paradise. He was called to the Camp Fire at 7:16 that morning and hurtled toward the Ridge with his siren on, in an 18-wheeler flatbed with his bulldozer lashed to the back.
Kennedy is 36, a fantastically giant man with a shaved head and a friendly face but the affect of a granite wall; he spoke quietly and, it seemed, never a syllable more than necessary. He had operated heavy equipment his entire adult life, working as a contractor in the same small mountain towns around the Sierra where he grew up, then joined Cal Fire in 2014, just before he and his wife had a child. He claimed his supremely taciturn nature was a byproduct of fatherhood; until then, he explained, he was a more reckless adrenaline junkie. But Kennedy loved bulldozers, and he loved the rush of barreling toward a fire in one. “Dozer driver” seemed to be less his job description than his identity, his tribe. “In 10 years,” he joked, “they’ll probably consider it a mental disorder.”
Kennedy was dispatched to the Adventist Health Feather River hospital on Pentz Road. By the time he arrived, spot fires were igniting everywhere. The chatter on the radio was hard to penetrate. Now that he was in position, Kennedy couldn’t get in touch with anyone to give him a specific assignment, so he fell back on his training and a precept known as “leader’s intent”: If someone were to give him an order, he asked himself, what would it be?
By then, the hospital staff had completed a swift evacuation of the facility. Nurses later described doing precisely what they practiced in their annual drills but at three or four times the speed: wheeling patients through the halls at a sprint, staging everyone in the E.R. lobby, then sorting all 67 inpatients into a haphazard fleet of ambulances and civilians’ cars arriving outside to carry them away. Many didn’t make it far. One ambulance, carrying a woman who had just had a C-section and was still immobilized from the waist down, quickly caught fire in the traffic on Pentz. Paramedics hustled the woman into a nearby empty house. Others took shelter there as well. A Cal Fire officer, David Hawks, mobilized them into an ad hoc fire brigade to rake out the gutters and hose down the roof as structures on either side began to burn. How did you go about reconstructing this scene? This particular event was well documented in newspaper stories, which is how I first heard about it, though I also talked to several nurses from the hospital who had firsthand knowledge of what was happening. I believe I talked to Hawks himself, too, though I could be misremembering.
Kennedy caught snippets on his radio about this group and others hunkered in nearby houses. He’d found his assignment. He climbed into his bulldozer, a colossal Caterpillar D5H that traveled on towering treads like a tank and was outfitted with a huge steel shovel, or “blade.” It also had a pretty killer sound system, and as Kennedy turned the ignition, the stereo automatically connected to his phone through Bluetooth and started playing Pantera. How did you verify this? Was he recording or filming inside his cabin? No. I just took his word for it. Kennedy’s technical skill and experience as a heavy-machinery operator was formidable; so was his knowledge of wild-land firefighting tactics. But, given the scale of disaster unfolding around him, all that expertise now concentrated into one urgent, almost blockheadedly simple directive: “Take the fire away from the houses.”
Of course, Kennedy had no idea which houses any of these people were in. All around the hospital lay a sprawl of mostly ranch homes, packed together on small, wooded lots. A great many were already burning, so Kennedy homed in on the others and started clearing anything flammable, or anything already in flames, away from them. Ornamental landscaping, woodpiles, trees—he ripped it all out of the ground, pushed it aside or plowed straight through it, clearing a buffer around each home. He worked quickly, brutally, unhindered by any remorse over the collateral damage he was causing; it’s impossible, he explained, to maneuver an 18-ton bulldozer between two adjacent houses and not scrape up a few corners.
Before long, Kennedy lost track of exactly where he was; he hadn’t even bothered to switch on the GPS in his dozer yet. “It seemed like forever, but it was probably a half-hour,” he said. “I think I got eight or nine houses. I made a pretty big mess.”
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Wildfires are typically attacked by strategically positioned columns of firefighters who advance on the fire’s head, heel or flanks like knights confronting a dragon. Earlier in the story you compare ambers to fairies. Why did you choose to use a fairy-tale like simile here as well — a dragon and knights — to describe the fire and firefighters? I don’t know — it goes back to the sense of a fire as a living being. I do remember, though, not realizing until many drafts later that dragons actually breathe fire, so it works on that level too. If a fire is spreading too rapidly for such an offensive, they instead work to contain it, drawing boundaries around the blaze—a “big box,” it’s called. Work crews or bulldozers clear vegetation and cut fire breaks to harden that perimeter. Aircraft drop retardants. Everything in the big box can be ceded to the fire; if you have to, you let it burn. But ideally, you hold those lines, and the flames don’t spread any farther.
As wildfires get fiercer and more unruly, firefighters aren’t just unable to mount direct attacks but are also forced to draw larger and larger boxes to keep from being overrun themselves. “The big box is a lot bigger now,” one Cal Fire officer explained. (He asked not to be named, hesitant to publicly concede that “our tactics need to change.”) What did it take for your editor to agree to you quoting an anonymous source? In this case, not much, particularly since I was explaining the source’s reticence in the story. ] But this strategy breaks down when the fire is racing toward a populated area. The extra space you would surrender to the fire might contain a neighborhood of several hundred homes.
Wildfires aren’t solid objects, moving in a particular direction at a particular speed. They are frequently erratic and fluid, ejecting embers in all directions, producing arrays of spot fires that then pull together and ingest any empty space between them. On Nov. 8, the wind was so strong that gusts easily lofted embers from one rim of the Feather River Canyon to the other like a trebuchet, launching fire out of the wilderness into Fisher’s neighborhood. The more I read of the story, the more circular in structure it appears to be. This line, for instance, reads like a quick circle back to the very first scene, with Fisher in her garden. It’s not circular to me. It’s just that it’s all happening in a very compact space and time, so events brush up against each other.
As this swirl of live embers descended, like the flecks in a snow globe, each had the potential to land in a receptive fuel bed: the dry leaves in someone’s yard, the pine needles in a gutter. Those kinds of fuels were easy to find. It was November, after all, past the time of year that wildfires traditionally start, and Paradise’s trees had carpeted the town with tinder. And every speck of flame that rose up in it had the potential to leap into an air vent and engulf a home. Now it is a spot fire—a beachhead in the built environment, spattering its own embers everywhere, onto other houses, rebooting the entire process.
Within two hours of the first spot fires being reported near Fisher’s house, others leapfrogged from one end of Paradise to the other. The progression was unintelligible from any one point on the ground. As one man who was at the hospital later told me, “I thought that the only part of Paradise that was on fire was the part of Paradise we were looking at.” Why did you not name this man? I can’t defend this. Journalistically, it’s better to name people. But as a human being, it’s sort of rude to ask for someone’s time and then do this to them. I guess I just didn’t want to complicate the moment by introducing a new name and having to identify the person. And, as happened with Fisher, this generated a horrifying kind of dissonance: scurrying away from the fire only to discover that the fire was suddenly ahead of you and alongside you, too.
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“Take deep breaths,” Laczko said.
Fisher had just told him about trying to kill herself. They were barely moving. Embers darted by like schools of bioluminescent fish. Evergreen trees alongside them burned top to bottom. These were the town’s famous pines, stressed from years of drought; the pitch inside was heating to its boiling point and, the moment it vaporized, the length of the trunk would flash into flame all at once. This became one of the more nightmarish and stupefying sights that morning on the Ridge: giant trees suddenly combusting.
The topography of that particular stretch of Pearson Road made it a distinctly horrible place to be stranded. Beyond the guardrail to Fisher and Laczko’s left, a densely wooded ravine yawned open, with a stream known as Dry Creek Drainage far below. Already, the spot fires and burning trees on either side of the road were casting heat inward. But as the mass of the wildfire moved in, the ravine appeared to create a chimney effect, funneling flames up and over the street—only to be overridden periodically by the prevailing winds, which pushed the flames back. Everyone on Pearson was caught in the middle.
A Cal Fire branch director, Tony Brownell, told me that he was astonished to watch fire doubling back across Pearson, washing over the same land it had just scorched, only the second such immediate “reburn” he witnessed in his 31-year career. This was about 15 minutes before Fisher’s car ignited. Brownell, it turns out, was the fireman in the white pickup truck whom she initially followed into that gridlock from back on Pentz Road. Brownell managed to escape quickly, but as he turned his vehicle around and drove away, he told me, he looked at the flames in his rearview mirror and thought, I just killed that girl. All timelines and events seem to be moving toward one point of encounter/meeting point. When during your research process did you start realizing that so many individual storylines met, even if for a moment? And when/how/why did you decide to show those storylines crisscrossing? Perhaps more importantly, how did you organize your sources and the timeline of all the events, so as to be able to see such “coincidences/meeting points,” and later verify such exact details? Tamra’s videos were timestamped. So I catalogued everything happening in them in a text doc and then I inserted new material into that timeline as I learned it. I’d just finished writing my second book, “This is Chance!,” which took place over the course of three days after an earthquake, and had used this same process to organize tens of thousands of pages of source material and audio recordings. Collating six hours of events was easier.
“You’d think that people would just hurry up and go,” Fisher said.
“There’s no place to go,” Laczko told her. “They’re trying. Cal Fire’s here to help.”
He could see a fire engine a few car-lengths ahead. After fighting to weave forward, it, too, had been more or less swallowed by the same intractable traffic. Laczko silently made the calculation that if his own truck caught fire, he and Fisher would make a run for it and climb inside to safety.
This would have been a mistake. The Cal Fire captain driving the fire engine, John Jessen, later estimated that the outside temperature was more than 200 degrees, the air swirling with lethally hot gases. Cars were catching fire everywhere, and four drivers fled toward that fire truck and, one after another, crammed themselves into the cab alongside its three-man crew. When two more people came knocking, Jessen turned them away—no more room, he said. “That was probably the worst thing I’ve ever had to do,” Jessen said later. “I don’t know if those people made it to another car. I don’t know what happened to them.” When did you talk to Jessen? He was one of the last people I interviewed.
This was Jessen’s 24th fire season in California. He’d fought five of the 10 most destructive fires in state history and was beginning to feel beaten down. “When I started this career 25 years ago, a 10,000-acre fire was a big deal,” he said. “And it was a big deal if we weren’t able to do structure defense and the fire consumed five homes. We took that to heart. We felt like we lost a major battle.” Just moments earlier, around the corner on Pentz, Jessen watched fire consume dozens of homes within minutes. He was knocking on the door of another, to evacuate any stragglers, when he saw the actual fire front for the first time. It was already climbing the near side of the canyon, pounding toward town. The wall of flame was 200 feet tall, he estimated, and stretched for more than two and a half miles. That was the moment Jessen scrambled back to his truck and told his crew it was time to move.
Now, marooned on Pearson, Jessen radioed for air support. Later, he would seem embarrassed by this request, chalking it up to “muscle memory”: The smoke was too thick for aircraft to fly in. The paint on his hood started burbling from the heat. Inside, the plastic on his steering console was smoking; the stench of its off-gasing filled the cab. The barrel-shaped fuel tanks beneath the doors were splashing diesel around the truck; the brass plugs in their openings got so hot they liquefied.
Jessen, meanwhile, was making a desperate calculation of his own: If their truck caught fire, he decided, they would extinguish it quickly and take off, saving the civilians aboard by pushing other cars out of the way with the front of his fire engine.
Maybe this was the lowest point. The mega-fire overwhelmed every system people put in place to fight or escape it; now it was scrambling their consciences too. “That’s something I never imagined I would be thinking about,” Jessen confessed, “pushing people closer to the fire so that I could get out.” I imagine that this must be a very difficult thing to admit for anyone, and even more so perhaps for a firefighter. I was very impressed by the frankness of him and other firefighters I spoke to. They were all hurting.
Jessen sat there, watching for signs that his truck was about to catch fire. Laczko sat watching his own truck, ready to run for Jessen’s. Then someone shouted, “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!” Laczko saw a bulldozer churn into view behind him, clobbering one burning car after another. Here the four main narrative lines meet again. Did you plan the narrative threads (Fisher’s, then Fisher/Laczko’s, Kennedy’s, and Jessen’s) to look like the map of the three main roads in Paradise — like the legs of the tripod you mentioned earlier — with Fisher representing the stem of the tripod? No. I’ve never really found that level of metaphorical understanding of a story to be helpful to me. I appreciate those things as a reader but it’s not where my head’s at when I’m writing.
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Joe Kennedy had been mashing through people’s landscaping on Pentz when he heard Jessen’s distress call. There was no time for the standard, numeric identifiers. “John,” Kennedy radioed. “Where you at?”
He switched on the iPad in his dozer and found Jessen’s position near the corner of Pearson and Stearns Road. It was more than a mile away. The dozer’s maximum speed was 6.3 miles per hour. But Kennedy clipped that distance by disregarding the right angles on his street map and barging his bulldozer through backyards, then eventually barreling down the steep, wooded incline overlooking Pearson and spilling, sloppily, into the middle of the street.
He produced a spectacular ruckus as he pushed the machine down the hill on its treads. From the road, it sounded like trees crashing—and some of it probably was. As Kennedy leveled off, he came upon a group of people, including four nurses from the hospital in scrubs. They were stranded in the middle of Pearson, battered by gusts of embers roaring out of the ravine, buckling over, struggling to breathe and keep walking. One nurse, Jeff Roach, was walking straight at Kennedy’s bulldozer, with his arms in the air. Later, Roach explained that he had decided the bulldozer driver would either see him and rescue him and his three friends, or would not see him, keep advancing and crush him under the vehicle’s treads. The burning in Roach’s lungs was so bad, he said, that he had made his peace with either outcome.
Kennedy stopped. Two of the nurses climbed aboard then scampered to rejoin the others who had piled into a fire engine that appeared behind him. Kennedy began fighting his way up Pearson, toward Jessen, but found cars crammed into both lanes and the shoulder. Some people were idling right beside other vehicles that were expelling fountains of flame. Kennedy turned up the Pantera. He knew what he had to do: take the fire away from the people.
He approached the first burning car and pushed it off the embankment and into the ravine with his dozer blade, then backed up to discover a flaming rectangle of asphalt underneath it. He drove through that, pushed more cars. “I was basically on fire,” Kennedy said. A photo later surfaced of an old Land Cruiser shoved so far up the adjacent hillside that it became snared in some sagging power lines. “That was me,” Kennedy explained with a noticeable quantum of pride.
At least one of the vehicles Kennedy was shoving around had a body in it: Evva Holt, an 85-year-old retired dietitian who lived at Feather Canyon Gracious Retirement Living, close to Fisher’s house. Holt had phoned her daughter that morning to come get her—her daughter and son-in-law lived nearby and frequently came to perform for Holt and the other residents with their choral group—but there was no time. An independent caretaker named Lori LeBoa was readying to leave with a 103-year-old woman, and a police officer put Holt in her Chevy Silverado as well. The three women wound up stuck on Pearson. As the fire curled over LeBoa’s pickup, she jumped out and handed off the older woman to another driver. Turning back for Holt, she saw only fire and two arms reaching out. This is one of the most traumatic and saddest moments in the story, and one I’m sure must have been very difficult for LeBoa to share. How did you manage that conversation with LeBoa? Similar to what I said about the firefighters: People were disarmingly open with me, and I think it had something to do with the fact that they were all in such pain and grappling with the trauma of the event.
Months later, over coffee, I asked Kennedy if he remembered moving that Silverado. He did. The memory seemed painful; he preferred not to talk about it on the record, except to stress that it was clear that he arrived too late to help whoever was inside. Why did you decide to take the reader out of the scene for a moment, by mentioning when and where you discussed this with Kennedy? A similar instinct to what you asked about Cindy, earlier: It felt like you should be able to see him in the present, and particularly here because this perspective allows you to see him as a human being who’s affected by what he had to do afterward.
I asked if he knew any details about the woman, if he wanted me to tell him. “I like the story in my head,” he said. Did you learn about what had happened to Evva Holt before confirming with Kennedy if he had indeed moved the Silverado? How did you prepare to ask Joe Kennedy that question? What was the most difficult question you had to ask anyone while researching this story? Yes, I knew. Every conversation I had for this story was difficult emotionally.
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Kennedy opened enough space for the stranded drivers on Pearson to maneuver and slowly advance. Moments earlier, one nurse who’d leapt into his dozer accidentally knocked into his iPad, switching his GPS into satellite view. Eventually, when Kennedy looked down at the map again, his eyes locked onto a conspicuous, bare rectangle, free of any vegetation or structures—any fuels to burn. It was a large gravel lot right near Jessen’s fire engine; the firefighters just couldn’t see it through the smoke. Once Kennedy arrived, the firefighters began herding the entire traffic jam—more than a hundred cars, Jessen says—into that clearing.
“Pull over there,” a firefighter hollered at Laczko and Fisher as they crept uphill.
“And then what?” Laczko asked.
“Hunker down and keep your windows rolled up.”
“Are you serious?” Fisher erupted. She was hoping for a more sophisticated plan.
“They wouldn’t have put us here unless it was safer than where we were,” Laczko said.
He eased his truck into place, parallel with the others. Directly in front of them, through the windshield, the frame of a large house burned and burned. For a moment, it was quiet. Then Fisher broke down again, very softly this time. “I don’t have anything,” she said. “I don’t have anything.” The repetition of “burned” adds a moment of repose in the middle of chaos, a moment of calm, as though everyone in that clearing watched, in silence, the house burn. The sentence that follows, “For a moment, it was quiet,” only reinforces that momentary human silence suggested by “burned and burned.” I’m told that wildfires are terribly loud, however. Why did you decide not to mention the fire’s roar? I’m not sure. I suppose I was working off the video of that moment, and in the video, in the cab of Larry’s truck, it was rather quiet.
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Fires are unique among natural disasters: Unlike earthquakes or hurricanes, they can be fought, slowed down or thwarted. And virtually every summer in Paradise, until that Thursday morning, they had been. There was always trepidation as fire season approached but also skepticism that evacuation would ever truly be necessary and worth the hassle. “I confess my sense of denial,” said Jacky Hoiland, who had lived in Paradise most of her life and worked for the school district for 20 years. Initially, after hearing about the Camp Fire, she took a look at the sky and then made herself a smoothie.
Still, even before the Camp Fire, many people in Paradise and around California had started to look at the recent succession of devastating fires—the Tubbs Fire, the Thomas Fire, blazes that ate through suburban-seeming neighborhoods and took lives—and intuit that our dominion over fire might be slipping. Something was different now: Fire was winning, finding ways to outstrip our fight response, to rear up recklessly and break us down. That morning, in Paradise, there hadn’t even been time for that fight response to kick in. And the flight response was failing, too. Those who study wildfire have long argued that we need to reshuffle our relationship to it—move from reflexively trying to conquer fire to designing ways for communities to outfox and withstand it. And in a sense, that’s what was happening with Laczko and Fisher, though only in a hasty and desperate way: Hunkered in that gravel lot, everyone was playing dead.
After the fire, stories surfaced of people retreating into similar so-called temporary refuge areas all over the Ridge: clearings that offered some minimal protection or structures that could be easily defended. One large group sheltered in the Paradise Alliance Church, which had been scouted and fortified in advance as part of the town’s emergency planning. Another group sheltered outside a bar on Skyway and, when it caught fire, scampered, en masse, to an adjacent building and sheltered there. The Kmart parking lot became an impromptu refuge. So did an antique shop called Needful Things. In Concow, one firefighter instructed at least a dozen people to jump into a reservoir as the fire approached.
The group on Pearson wasn’t in the gravel clearing long, less than 10 minutes, it seems, from videos on Fisher’s phone. Eventually, there was a knock on Laczko’s window. “We’re going to get out of here,” a firefighter said, though he didn’t specify where they would go. Moments later, another firefighter on a bullhorn shouted, “We’re going to go toward the hospital.”
“Oh, shit,” Laczko blurted.
“We’re going back?” Fisher said. She sounded both terrified and incensed. The hospital was on Pentz Road, near where she started. The trauma of the last two hours appeared to be flooding back.
Joe Kennedy led the way in his bulldozer, crawling through the thick smoke on Pearson to batter any obstacles out of their way. The core of the fire had passed, though it had left a kind of living residue everywhere: All the wooden posts of a roadside metal barricade were still burning, and shoals of flames dotted the road where Kennedy had removed burning cars.
The cars were still burning, too, wherever he had deposited them, belching solid black smoke as the caravan of survivors slowly passed.
“There’s my car,” Fisher said and turned to film it. Fire spouted from its roof like the plume of a Roman helmet. This simile is just so unexpected. Could you describe how it came to you? That’s just how it looked! It looked exactly like that. The mascot at my high school was the “lancer” and the logo had a helmet somewhat like the Roman ones, so maybe it’s just baked more into my subconscious than the average person’s. “It has my Raggedy Ann in it!” she said. The doll was one of the few things she grabbed before evacuating. She had had it since she was 6 and had expected to be buried with it one day. “Oh, my God,” she said. “I’m crying over something so stupid!”
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At the hospital, a fire alarm quacked robotically as a small outbuilding, not far from where Laczko and Fisher were parked, expelled smoke from behind a fence. A group of nurses had scavenged supplies from the evacuated emergency room and erected a makeshift triage center under the awning to treat any wounded trickling in. Laczko got out of his truck to see how he could help.
The hospital campus was ringed and speckled with fire. Some of the men were peeing on the little spot fires that danced in the parking lot’s landscaped medians. Still, the influx of firefighters that morning had largely succeeded in defending the main building when the fire front moved through. Eventually, a call went out on the radio that the hospital campus was “actually the safest place to be.”
Fisher and Laczko’s group waited in the parking lot for close to three hours. Then, those lingering fires nearby began to swell and expand, threatening the hospital again. The firefighters were losing pressure in their hoses. The nurses were told to pack everything up. The road out was clear; they had a window in which it was safe to move. Everyone would finally be driving off the Ridge.
As they pulled out of the parking lot, back onto Pentz Road, Laczko noticed his eye-doctor’s office burning top to bottom, directly in front of them.
“It’s gone,” Fisher said.
“It’s gone,” Laczko said.
“It’s gone,” Fisher repeated. “That house is gone! And that house is gone!” Fantastic dialogue and so heavy with meaning. Why did you choose to keep it so simple and not use anything else than “it’s gone” and “that house is gone”? Hearing the tape, you’d feel something powerful in the silences between them saying this, and the recognition that they were so dumbstruck by the damage that they just kept repeating the same simple words. This was probably an attempt to transmit that.
They went on gesturing at everything as they drove—or rather, at its absence: all the homes still burning and others that had already settled into static masses of scrap and ash. As happens in any small town, every part of Paradise was overlaid with memories and meanings; each resident had his or her own idiosyncratic map of associations. As Fisher and Laczko coasted down Pentz, they tried to reconcile their maps with the disfigured reality in front of them, speaking the names of each flattened side street, noting who lived there or the last time they had been down there themselves. The iconic home at the corner of Pearson, with the ornate metal fence and sculptures of lions, had been devoured: “It used to be on the garden tour,” Laczko said.
“Right here, that was my dog groomer’s house.”
“My sister is just right up here.”
“Are these the people that used to have the Halloween stuff up?”
It was 1:45 p.m. Thirty-nine minutes later, and 460 miles away, a small brush fire would be reported near a Southern California Edison substation north of Malibu. Firefighters wouldn’t contain the Woolsey Fire until it had swallowed nearly 100,000 acres and 1,600 structures and charged all the way to the Pacific, where it ran out of earth to consume. This time, as photos surfaced, all of America could find reference points on the map the fire had clawed apart: Lady Gaga evacuated. Miley Cyrus’s home was a ruin. The mansion from “The Bachelor” was encircled and singed.
“Oh, God, it’s all gone,” Fisher said again. She gaped at the east side of Pentz Road, facing the canyon, where there didn’t appear to be a single home left: just chimneys, wreckage, the slumping carcasses of cars, everything dun-colored and dead.
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Five months after the Camp Fire, at the end of March, the wreckage in Paradise was still overpowering: parcel after parcel of incinerated storefronts, cars, outbuildings, fast-food restaurants and homes. Patches of rutted pavement, like erratic rumble strips, still scarred Paradise’s roadways wherever vehicles had burned. On Pearson Road, I knelt beside one and found a circular shred of yellow plastic, fused into a ring of tar: a piece of Fisher’s car. It was startling how similar Paradise looked to when I first came, 10 days after the fire. Why did you decide to mention your own presence in Paradise both 10 days after the fire, and also five months later? This is just about transparency. Except that it was spring now: Clusters of daffodils were blooming, carefully arranged, bordering what had been fences or front steps.
That week, the city issued its first rebuilding permit, though roughly 1,000 residents were already back, somehow making a go of it, either in trailers or inside the scant number of houses that survived, even as public-health officials discovered that the municipal water system was contaminated with high levels of benzene, a carcinogen released by the burning homes and household appliances, then sucked through the pipes as firefighters drew water into their hoses. Driving around at dusk one evening, letting acre after acre of obliterated houses wash over me, I spotted a lone little boy in what appeared to be the head of a cul-de-sac—it was hard to tell—with heaps of houses all around him. He was standing with his arms raised, like a victor or a king, then he hopped back on his scooter and zipped away.
Jim Broshears, Paradise’s emergency-operations coordinator, pointed out that many of the homes still standing tended to be in clusters: “A shadow effect,” he called it, where one property broke the chain of ignitions—maybe because its owners employed certain fire-wise landscaping or design features, or maybe just by chance. It showed that, while the destructiveness of any fire is largely random, there are ways a community can collectively lower the odds. “It’s really a cultural shift that requires people to look at their home in a different way,” Broshears said: to see the unkempt azalea bush or split rail fence touching your home as a hazard that will carry the next fire forward like a fuse, not just to your house but also to the others around it—to recognize that everyone is joined in one massive pool of incalculable and unconquerable risk.
The free market, meanwhile, has continued adjusting to that risk according to its own unsparing logic. Insurance companies have steadily raised premiums or even ceased to renew policies in many fire-prone areas of California, as payouts for wildfire claims will now exceed $10 billion for the second year in a row. Two months after the Camp Fire, PG&E filed for bankruptcy protection. Then it announced, along with two of California’s other major utilities, that it would be expanding its Public Safety Power Shutoff program this year. The company is now prepared to preventively cut electricity to a larger share of its infrastructure—high-voltage wires, as well as lower-voltage ones—and across its entire range. Nearly five and a half million customers could be subject to shutdowns at one time or another this summer, “which is all of our customer base,” a PG&E vice president, Aaron Johnson, told me: every single one. “With the increasing fire risk that we’re seeing in the state,” he added, “and the increasing extreme weather, this program is going to be with us for some time to come.”
In California, the prospect of life without electricity from time to time—a signature convenience of the 20th century—has apparently become an unavoidable, even sensible, feature of the 21st.
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How did it end? With smoke—with colossal shapes of smoke gurgling out of Paradise behind Laczko and Fisher as they glided downhill, and with a stoic figure somewhere inside the smoke, single-mindedly grinding through neighborhoods in his bulldozer, music blaring, chasing after flames as they stampeded uphill, but mostly failing to get ahead of them as he and every other firefighter labored to keep fire away from structures that seemed, in the end, determined to burn.
The houses had revealed themselves: They were just another crop of tightly clustered and immaculately dried-out dead trees, a forest that had grown, been felled and milled, then rearranged sideways and hammered together by clever human beings who, over time, came to forget the volatile ecosystem that spawned that material and still surrounded it now. Some of that wood most likely lived 100 years or more and had been lumber for almost as long: a storehouse of energy that was now bursting open, joining with the burning forests around the Ridge into a single, furious outpouring of smoke—ominous because it was dark and high enough to challenge the sun, but also because it was largely composed of carbon: an estimated 3.6 million metric tons of greenhouse gases that, as seems to happen at least once every fire season lately, was more than enough to obliterate the progress made by all of California’s climate-change policies in a typical year.
How did it end? With smoke—with smoke that signaled the world that Fisher knew at the beginning of the day was gone and that surely signaled something just as grave for the rest of us. Why did you decide to repeat the phrase “with smoke?” This was Jake Silverstein’s idea. It was the week we were closing the piece and he felt the piece needed to hit a more elevated register at the end. It wasn’t enough to just conclude the small narrative by showing Tamra and Larry getting off the Ridge; we needed to leave the larger, more universal narrative somewhere, too. And in a more poetic way. He’d had me write that nut graf about Tamra being trapped in the twenty-first century, which made clear how the story is actually about all of us, and now we needed a bookend for that, telling us all what to make of it in the end. I had started this section with the phrase “How did it end?” and it was Jake’s idea to keep repeating it, like some kind of scary, demented mantra. I was writing under such duress that I was happy to have a suggestion to get started with and this is how it came out. Within hours, and for nearly two weeks after that, smoke would swamp the lucid blue sky over the valley where Fisher was now heading; where, for weeks, she would be afraid to be left alone and, for months, refuse to drive, terrified by the sensation of slowing down in traffic, even momentarily; where she found herself repeatedly checking the sky to make sure it wasn’t black; where she kept showering but swore she still smelled the smoke on her skin. And before long, the smoke had floated all the way to the coast, where it forced the city of San Francisco to close its schools.
How did it end? It hasn’t. It won’t. These three short sentences have been haunting me since I first read this feature piece. Why did you choose to end the narrative on such a note — I don’t want to use the word “negative” or pessimistic,” or even “realistic,” though all three would work here, in a way — rather than on one of hope? There is hope in the small narrative — in all the acts of cooperation and heroism that aligned to help Tamra get out. But now I’m dealing with the larger narrative — climate change — and I don’t see anything in the 11,000 words that have preceded this passage from which I could credibly draw hope. There are other hopeful stories to write about climate change, but this one is about the terror.
Jon Mooallem is a writer at large for the magazine. His book about the great Alaska earthquake of 1964, “This Is Chance!” will be out early next year. Katy Grannan is a photographer and filmmaker based in Berkeley, Calif. She last took photographs for the magazine for an article about the Ghost Ship fire.
Videos from Tamra Fisher
Ania Hull is a multilingual editor, writer and journalist. She writes about immigration, poverty, conservation, and environmental justice, among other topics. She is currently based in New Mexico.