How Do You Tell the Story of a Fire?

How Do You Tell the Story of a Fire?

A conversation with reporter Lizzie Johnson about the aftermath of wildfires and the human cost of neglected infrastructure.     


When I spoke with journalist Lizzie Johnson back in spring, catastrophic blazes hadn’t yet struck much of the West Coast. We were wary, though, with the image of last fall’s sickly orange sun burned into memory, and the promise of new and devastating fire seasons exacerbating a tedious waiting game. This summer, for example, the impacts of Western wildfires weren’t limited by region: Smoke that traveled from fires in Oregon and eastern California induced the very same orange-tinged skies in Brooklyn, and even as far as coastal Maine.

Johnson has been covering wildfires since 2017—she made a home at the San Francisco Chronicle as one of the nation’s first full-time fire reporters before recently joining The Washington Post—with a consistent focus on those whose lives have been completely undone by such disasters. Her first book, Paradise: One Town’s Struggle to Survive an American Wildfire, is a compassionate, in-depth examination of the devastating 2018 Camp Fire and its aftermath. We talked about the role of neglected energy infrastructure in the onset of big blazes, the broken legacy of European land-management practices, and the power of narrative in relaying the grim realities of climate change while also inspiring calls to action. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

—Emma Hager

Emma Hager: The Camp Fire of 2018, which you detail in Paradise, is considered the deadliest, most destructive wildfire in California history, and one that destroyed the Northern California town of Paradise. Could you put this fire into perspective for us? How many acres were burned, structures destroyed, lives lost?

Lizzie Johnson: The Camp Fire brought about the kind of destruction that we had never seen before in California. It burned down more than 14,000 homes and killed 85 people. I think, for a long time, scientists and fire officials had been saying that there is this “new normal,” that the way we were living on the land needed to change because something like this was going to happen, but [climate change] can seem amorphous. And then the Camp Fire is what made it concrete, and it really cemented what stood to be lost.

It was the deadliest natural disaster for the entire world that year—so destructive not just to the towns that burned down, but smoke filled the skies all across California. Schools were put out of session; students couldn’t go to class. It was just a really horrifying realization that this was what climate change looked and felt like, and that this was just the beginning. I think that’s really what the fire symbolized.

EH: This disaster is classified as a “megafire.” Can you tell us what that means, and how this classification came about?

LJ: Yeah, so I don’t know the exact year, but I know that in recent years, people have been talking about it more and more. At first, it was: “Wow, these fires are topping more than 100,000 acres!” There was the Thomas Fire in 2017, which was the biggest in state history, and it held that title for less than a year before the Mendocino Complex Fire toppled it. And then in 2020 we had the “gigafire,” which was the first time we had ever used that term to describe more than a million acres burned. So even the phrases that we use start to become outdated, because these fires are outpacing our ways of describing them.

EH: The Camp Fire was started by a faulty PG&E transmission line. Pacific Gas and Electric is the state’s largest utility, and its infrastructure has caused known fires since the mid-1990s, I believe. Can you describe the state’s relationship to PG&E, and why this keeps happening?

LJ: Those are big questions, huh? I mean, it’s complicated because PG&E is a private, investor-owned utility, but it’s not a company like Facebook or Google, where you can try to slap fines on them and not worry so much about their success, because in California, a lot of the residents here—one in 20—rely on PG&E for natural gas and for power. So there is a limit to how much you can try and punish the utility, because at the end of the day, it’s still a necessity. People need it.

I think that power dynamic has really impacted how Sacramento has legislated on PG&E, and even the court-ordered supervision following the San Bruno explosion in 2010—well, the utility has been under court-ordered supervision for a couple of years now and continues to set fires. It set the Zogg Fire last year, it set the Camp Fire, set the Kinkaid Fire, and I think it’s enormously frustrating to a lot of people that a company that is providing these services is doing such wrong and continues to neglect infrastructure in a way that kills people. Many believe the company should be punished and should be forced to change. But if the company knows that it is necessary and that people need it, how much can it really change?

EH: Yes, I mean, they’re abusing their monopoly status.

LJ: And at the end of the day, for however much politicians want to say that the state will just take over PG&E or take away its license, even that seems like a very thin threat, because the state doesn’t really want to take over a very vulnerable electrical grid. And if you take away PG&E’s operating license, what do you do for the millions of people suddenly left in the dark?

EH: Beyond rolling blackouts—when a utility intentionally cuts power to areas threatened by prime wildfire conditions, so as to reduce the danger of downed lines—can you detail what efforts, if any, the utility is doing to mitigate potential wildfires at this point?

LJ: Obviously, PG&E doesn’t set out to start the fires. It’s not like, in some boardroom, they’re saying, “Hey, let’s set more fires!” They have been putting up more high-definition cameras around their service areas as a start. Basically, they replace those traditional fire towers, and they’ll keep watching and making sure that there’s no spark—and if there is, they try and get the fire out as soon as possible. PG&E also has a wildfire safety center, and that goes online when high fire risk is forecasted. This is all in addition to the rolling blackouts, which have been shown to stop fires from starting—but that can be a really tough metric, right? Because people hate being blacked out, and there’s really no way of proving “Hey, we prevented this thing from happening.”

But they need to do more: They have to harden their infrastructure, which is going to take much, much longer than a few years to address. It’s not a simple fix.

EH: In Paradise, you detail the immediate aftermath of the Camp Fire, and we see the outrage that the Paradise community has toward PG&E and even the targeting of specific PG&E workers. What are the Camp Fire victims’ relationships to the utility like currently? Are there calls within the community to try to nationalize the company? Or is that really not part of the discussion?

LJ: The people in Paradise are really just still trying to rebuild their lives. If you remember, the community was tucked up in the Sierra Nevada foothills, partly because people couldn’t afford to live anywhere else. So this is not an overnight fix, where folks can just build a new foundation and prop up a new house. And I think there’s a lot of frustration, too, because it’s taking so long to get payouts from PG&E to replace what was lost.

And so I think it’s just still that simmering bitterness, where—imagine losing everything that you know, from your house to your neighbors to your town, and just living in that trauma for years and years and years. It’s hard, so I think there is that bitterness toward the utility, but people are very focused on trying to get solid ground more so than really calling to nationalize the company.

EH: What can or should citizens beyond the burning American West take away from these massive conflagrations?

LJ: I was kind of getting at this earlier, but climate change can sometimes be conceptualized as this ephemeral thing, and it’s often been hard for many to picture it tangibly impacting our daily lives. And yet these fires are such a clear indication of the direction our world is trending, and so even if you live on the East Coast and you aren’t directly impacted by these fires, I think it’s such a sign of what is to come. Maybe, back East, your home isn’t going to burn down in a wildfire, but it could flood in a hurricane, or get hit by a tornado, or rising sea levels could inundate your town. And so, at the very least, I think it’s a wake-up call in starting to do more in calling for policy change and stronger policies regarding the climate. We cannot just sit back and expect the next generation to take care of this, because there’s so much to be lost. And every time I think of climate change more broadly, I think of all the things that I saw in Paradise. How can anyone ignore that?

EH: Toward the end of the book, you describe the sale of PG&E CEO Geisha Williams’s expensive Tiburon, Calif., home. This sale did ultimately earn her more than what the utility settled to pay for the 85 people they killed in igniting the Camp Fire. Even in this book, you rely on damning details to allude to larger structural inequalities, rather than formulating specific arguments around said inequalities. Is this because you feel vested still in impartiality, or do you see it more as a rhetorical device that you’ve found to be powerful?

LJ: Yeah, keeping that impartiality, in part—a good journalist always shows rather than tells. And so I could’ve just written [it] out, but I’ve found it hits people the hardest if you have maybe one or two telling details that illustrate the larger issues. That bit about Geisha Williams is only a paragraph, but it speaks so much to that power imbalance in the state, and the fact that there really is only so much you can do to punish this utility—and that at the end of the day, those 85 lives just weren’t worth as much to [those in charge] as they should be. And again, I could just come out and say that, or I could describe the house, and what the house means, and how much she sold it for, and you feel that inequity. It’s so unfair, and I want to make the readers feel something. I want to make them cry. I want to make them feel angry. And you do that with the details.

EH: Tell me about your decision to interweave various legends of the Konkow Maidu people, who were the original Indigenous inhabitants of what is now Paradise and its neighboring areas.

LJ: History is so often whitewashed, especially that of how we manage the environment. Indigenous groups had done prescribed, preventative burning for centuries and really understood—and understand—how to live on the land in a way that replenished it and kept it healthy. And, of course, when white settlers came West, they saw all fire as evil and were just like, “Oh, we’ll suppress all of this.” So I thought [incorporating the legends] was a way of honoring the pre-settler history of this place and the people who had gone through a similarly destructive fire to the Camp Fire in Paradise. It just so eerily and perfectly paralleled what those people had gone through, with so many deaths and the loss of the community, and that sense that this was home for them. Their home was burned, so they had to go somewhere else, but all they wanted was to come back. Incorporating these stories felt like a way of honoring the Indigenous people who called that place home. And again, I feel like we leave out their history way too often, so I hoped it would make people really think about what had been there before and what we could learn from their forest-management techniques and their history.

EH: What relationship, if any, does the predominantly white, working-class community of Paradise have with Indigenous burning practices? Has talk of prescribed burns and traditional forest management made it into discussions of the town’s future?

LJ: Not as much as you would hope. Do you remember last year, there was the big fire in Butte County again, and it burned down the towns of Berry Creek and Sutter Falls? The Butte County Fire Safe Council had planned to do some preventative burning in the area and just couldn’t get the money to do so. When they did end up getting the money, they just didn’t have the time—they had scheduled those burns and forest thinning [for] shortly after the fires happened. So it was tragic, because maybe that devastation could’ve been prevented.

There’s still that hesitancy, too. People are still afraid of fire. They don’t like seeing smoke in the “off season”; they don’t like seeing burned-down trees. I think it’s easier for the state to allocate money for putting out a fire rather than preventing one. Preventative burning isn’t as sexy to the state, and that urgency isn’t there, so I think we’re still living with that European legacy of beating fire off the landscape. Even as people talk more and more about how important it is to do that—it’s one thing to talk about it, and it’s another thing to actually do it. I’m hoping that in the coming years there is more of a push for prescribed burning, and that people are more accepting of it.

EH: When the SCU and LNU Lightning Complex fires happened in August of last year, I was so touched by what I interpreted as a larger push to acknowledge Indigenous relationships to land and fire, and more so Indigenous sovereignty over tribes’ respective territories. These topics certainly weren’t in mainstream conversations even a couple of years prior, and yet it’s still disheartening to see that when you leave the fire ecology communities and larger environmental science communities, prescribed burns still aren’t put into practice on the scale they have to be, or even really discussed to the same degree at the state level.

LJ: It’s getting better, and it will take time. After having seen fire’s devastation firsthand, I wish change would happen faster, but the fact that we’re having shifting conversations about fire is a good sign.

EH: How have the demands of your job changed as fires have gotten worse and more frequent?

LJ: During fire season in years past, it was hard to even sleep at night, because you just never know when a fire is going to start, and then the season has become so insane that there really is no break. Already I can feel myself getting tense as fire season nears and I start to hear reports of tiny fires, because that means the big fires are going to follow soon. I get anxious when the wind hits the window and all of that. It’s tough. It takes a toll. There’s no avoiding it—we’re just living and waiting for something bad to happen.

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