When Paradise became Hell on Earth – A well written story from The California Sunday Magazine

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Gone

Decades of greed, neglect, corruption, and bad politics led to last year’s Paradise fire, the worst in California history. It should never have happened. It will happen again.


I.

By the time I made it to Paradise, the deadliest wildfire in California history was four months past, and the burned-out ridge between the two river canyons was pouring rain. I was riding the Skyway, the road from Chico to Paradise, flatland to hilltop, trying to understand what forces had conspired last November to create a blaze of such anger that it took the lives of 85 people and destroyed 19,000 structures.

I had puzzled out enough disasters to know that tragedy was a force of intricate construction. It wasn’t one detached act that materialized as tragedy but myriad smaller acts — some incidental, some accidental, others malevolent — that lined up in perfect continuity. Had one circumstance in the sequence lost its footing, a cosmic stumble, the next circumstance would have never hitched on, and tragedy would have been averted.

Halfway into the ridge, the black clouds cleared, and the rain stopped falling. Through the ponderosa pine and cedar, the sun shot brilliant rays that lit up both sides of the Skyway. The extent of the fire’s destruction now came clear. My tour guide, Joan Degischer, a native of Paradise who married a Paradise boy and was raising two Paradise girls, counted six houses in her extended family that had been lost to the fire. As she drove from one ravaged spot to the next, she seemed unsure whether to narrate the ruin herself or keep quiet so that the visitor might find his own words.

On this perch of volcanic red earth, where gold mining gave way to logging and logging gave way to apple growing and apple growing gave way to suburbia, a misplaced place had arisen. What to call the experiment? If you counted the sprawl up the mountain that followed the original sprawl on the hill, 40,000 people lived atop a geologic chimney. Though the citizens through the decades were unable to muster the collective will to contain the growth, they did not proceed out of ignorance of the dangers it courted. Rather, they chose to forget about the last drought, the last flood, the last wildfire. And so, self-consciously, as if it might save them from such a fate, they insisted Paradise wasn’t a “city” they were building on the ridge. It was, upon incorporation in 1979, an official town. The Town of Paradise. The “Town with a future” went the slogan.

On this perch of volcanic red earth, where gold mining gave way to logging and logging gave way to apple growing and apple growing gave way to suburbia, 
a misplaced place had arisen.

It was empty now, and it was filled up. Scorched trees and felled trees, burnt shells of cars and melted piles of twisted corrugated tin, ashes of businesses, ashes of houses, ashes of people had become its own place. There were stretches of the Skyway where fire had not touched what the townsfolk had built, but these stretches had been altered, too, turned into things no longer recognizable by the things that were missing. Brick chimneys stood guard over the voids like giant middle fingers.

We could only speak to what was gone:

Jack in the Box … Gone.

Century 21 … Gone.

Edward Jones Investments … Gone.

Kelly’s Muffler … Gone.

Beyond Fitness … Gone.

The Safeway Shopping Center … Gone.

The Paradise Inn and Mamma Celeste’s Pizzeria … Gone.

Evergreen Mobile Home Park and the Newton-Bracewell Cremation … Gone.

Seven months after the fire

A melted basketball hoop

Joan Degischer’s home survived the Paradise fire, but six houses in her extended family were lost.

Degischer turned onto Camellia Drive and tried to find familiar ground. The Feather River had gouged out the canyon to our left; Butte Creek had gouged out the canyon to our right. A half-dozen longtime families had once lived on the crooked little street. Their houses were made of wood, she said, and their gardens were painted with flowers. The Parrotts, the Yermans, the Mackays, the Woods. Harvey Parrott was a popular dentist in town. His daughter married a dentist named Chatfield, and they lived on Camellia, too. A retired female professor from UC Berkeley moved in next door. All the previous canyon fires, including a blaze that raced up the ridgeline in June 2008 and consumed 74 houses, had let this neighborhood be. But the orange-red tornado that came down the Feather Canyon at 7 a.m. on the morning of November 8, 2018, was riding 65 mph winds. Only a single house, the one belonging to the professor, was left standing.

Degischer pulled up to one of the voids. “This is where I grew up,” she said. What she said next sounded like testimony. “My parents are Michael and Debra Wood. We moved into this house in 1989, when I was 1 year old. My brother, Jack, was born here. It was 1,700 square feet on a full acre. There used to be a rose garden over there. We stood in front of it for our prom and graduation pictures. We had a peach tree, a walnut tree, and a Chinese pistache tree that was everyone’s favorite because it turned bright red and orange.” Her mom was a hippie from Oakland and her dad was a local boy, and their politics both leaned liberal, which made for a rare upbringing on the ridge. They gave her and her four siblings plenty of room to roam and passed on a love of Led Zeppelin and Merle Haggard, the latter allowing her some cred with the local rednecks. “I was a Star Wars geek growing up,” she said. “Still am.”

She and her husband, Kyle, had come back to Paradise after college to raise their two daughters. She took a job as an office assistant at Cedarwood Elementary. Kyle was a respiratory therapist who worked half the week out of town. Their oldest daughter, Freya, was about to turn 8. Degischer had named her after the goddess of Norse mythology. Tamzin, short for Thomasina, was 4 and sitting in the back seat. She had been born with cerebral palsy and was growing more impatient with each stop. Her mother was a study in calm, conjuring one distraction and another trying to soothe her. Mint candies finally did the trick.

Their own house, nestled on the upper ridge, had survived the fire. This was maybe her tenth time back to the house where she grew up. Each visit she found herself without the need to dig her knees into the ash. She wasn’t like her family and friends who sifted and sifted through the remains, a compulsion she understood. Each time their eyes caught a glint of something, they’d shout, “Look here,” and pick it up like it was a shred of proof. They would hold it in their hands only for it to disintegrate and be gone, too.

Her mother had stored their history in the master bedroom closet and the garage rafters. Not a thing of it was left. Not the high school yearbooks or wedding albums or the knickknacks handed down the generations. Degischer had to call an old friend to recover a wallet-sized version of her high school graduation photo. As a kid, she had fears of such a fire, and her father would tell her not to worry. “ ‘We’re in the middle of town,’ he’d say.  ‘All these structures surround us. For a fire to get to Camellia Drive, it would have to be Armageddon.’ ”

She steered past the professor’s house into a larger void where the sunlight seemed entirely cruel. Then she caught sight of the rest of the neighborhood as the street made its bend. It was a cliché, she knew, the phoenix rising from the ashes, but there up ahead, out of the soot, a Camellia bush stood in full bloom.

If you counted the sprawl up the mountain that followed the original sprawl on the hill, 40,000 people lived atop a geologic chimney.

She showed me the grocery store where her father worked as a clerk; the dive bar that served Chinese food where her mom was a waitress; the house where her grandfather Jack, a local prosecutor who had fled the Dust Bowl, lived; the day-care center where she landed her first job; and the Round Table Pizza where her husband learned to sling dough. Each place had been taken by fire. “I’ve been through it dozens of times,” she said. “But it never quite sinks in. ‘What even happened?’ I ask myself.”

The blaze had not altered her belief that the ridge — its seclusion and familiarity, its comfort and kinship — was a fine place to raise their children. As she drove back up the hill to where my car was parked, I wondered aloud about the wisdom of building a town where the risk to life and home was so great. “Did fire come to Paradise or did Paradise go to the fire?” I asked.

She nodded and considered an answer. Her pause made me think that my question — the facile “either/or” of it — wasn’t fair. To someone still absorbing the dimensions of what had taken place here, it might even have been callous. She could have told me to go to hell, and I would have understood. Before she could answer, I made a brushing motion with my left hand and swept the question away. The answer wasn’t so simple, I offered. Besides, the answer was mine to figure out. She nodded again.

Looking west from Paradise, toward Chico


II.

It starts — where else? — with men digging. Not the digging by the Maidu people, whose 10,000 years on the ridge hardly left a notch, but by the Americans who came at it with claws.

The year was 1859, and all the easy gold had been fished out of the Feather and Butte. In nearby Dogtown, a forty-niner named Chauncey Wright unearthed a record 54-pound nugget worth $10,690. He wasn’t using pan and pickax. Hydraulic mining, bending water into flumes and pressurizing it through hoses with nozzles, found his nugget. The rivers and canyons now belonged to industrialists who lived on San Francisco’s Nob Hill and possessed the capital to erect a sprawling system to capture and convey water.

Up the ridge rode William Leonard and his wagon crew in the wicked summer of 1860. He grabbed the shade of a ponderosa pine, the air light and cool, unlike any other he had ever breathed. “Boys,” he said, “this has got to be paradise.” This was as good a guess as any for how the town earned its name. Lumber was a new gold, he preached. He built a sawmill and a road that connected the ridge to the valley below. A church, a post office, John Strong’s General Store, and a Southern Pacific depot followed.

By 1902, the Diamond Match Company had acquired 55,000 acres on the ridge and built an even bigger sawmill that sent lumber down to Chico where matches were made. Two powerhouses were turning river flow into electricity. The new Pacific Gas & Electric Company, formed in 1905 with the merger of two smaller utilities in San Francisco and already gaining a reputation as a water-sucking serpent, made a play to own the ridge’s power. It bought the dam and reservoir the people had built and erected a new distribution system.

Pam Figge, former town planner and land-use professor

The early settlers had fled to the hills to get away from government, but they buried their suspicions long enough to form the Paradise Irrigation District in 1916. Irrigation domesticated, if not tamed, the ridge. Twelve thousand acres of pears, walnuts, olives, grapes, and apples were planted in the red soil. Heinke’s organic apple juice — made from “ripe, sound, washed, unsprayed mountain apples” — was prized throughout the state.

Chico looked up the mountain and down its nose at Paradise, which the flatlanders called “Poverty Ridge.” Only 15 miles separated the two communities, but the houses in Paradise were much cheaper. If a mobile-home park was the only dwelling you could afford, Paradise offered scores of open spaces under the pines. Poor white folk flocked to the ridge to beat the heat in summer and the tule fog in winter. Paradise soon found itself battling Chico for the right to run its own school district, even as its elementary school kept burning down.

A boom was on, and neither the state nor the county dared dictate to Paradise what it should or shouldn’t be.

By 1953, the Skyway had been paved and then expanded. The number of businesses grew by 50 percent in a six-year span. As the population swelled to 10,000, including large contingents of Mormons and Seventh-day Adventists, the growth might well have slowed or stopped, considering the ridge’s potential for wind-blown wildfire. But the forests of California were a new frontier, a place to celebrate the Western itch of reinvention and forever expansion. A boom was on, and neither the state nor the county dared dictate to Paradise what it should or shouldn’t be.

Pam Figge, an exile from Glendale fleeing the freeway life, moved to Paradise in the go-go year of 1971. She signed up for classes at Chico State and went to work at the weekly Ridge Gazette, covering the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors. “When it came to developing Paradise, it was anything goes. The loudest citizens wanted no governance, and the supervisors were more than happy to comply,” she said.

The first time Figge heard the term “four-by-fouring” in the county planning office, she wasn’t sure what it meant. A businessman bought a parcel in Paradise, and supervisors promptly agreed to his request to divide the parcel into four pieces. Then he sold one of the pieces to a partner, who went before the same board and won approval to divide his piece into four. On and on the slicing and dicing went. The number four wasn’t arbitrary. Had they split each piece into five, it would have qualified as a “subdivision” under state law and required developers and residents to fund the proper infrastructure to serve such growth.

Instead, scores of housing tracts popped up without sidewalks or gutters or buffers to provide a defensible space against fire. Roads came later, if they came at all. A municipal sewage system was never constructed. Septic tanks made of concrete — or nothing more than redwood planks covering a hole filled with gravel — handled the chore. You could smell the human waste bubbling up in the earth. “At some point, the septic tanks started failing, and Paradise had to say ‘No’ to any more restaurants or laundries,” Figge said. “There wasn’t enough capacity to handle their waste.”

So what does a place bred to grow but hemmed in by two canyons do? It goes higher up the narrow ridge and plants a new upscale community called Paradise Pines and markets it to retirees. Lured by newspaper ads in San Francisco and TV spots across the state, they arrived by the thousands in the 1960s and ’70s. They carted their equity and, in some cases, liberal politics to Paradise Pines and another expanding burg nearby called Magalia. Poverty Ridge wasn’t so impoverished anymore. Rednecks, retirees, and hippies could agree on this much: No arm of the local or state government need lay a hand on their pine trees.

In the years she worked as a reporter and then a town planner and finally a land-use professor at Chico State, Figge could not recall a fire official from the state or county ever publicly warning the ridge communities that a housing boom in the middle of wildfire country was risking property and lives. “Growth kept going,” she said. “It kept going because it brought a certain amount of respectability to a place known as Poverty Ridge.”

In the mid-1970s, Jane Dolan, who was raised in Chico and became the student-body president at the local state college, decided nothing would change until the makeup of the Butte County Board of Supervisors was changed. She had watched Paradise go from a rustic outpost, where her father took the family every Father’s Day for a spaghetti dinner at Tony’s, to a full-blown city with no governance. The four men and one woman who sat on the board acted as little more than minions for a handful of developers, builders, and realtors. None was more compliant than Supervisor Bob Lemke, a big, bearded man who represented Paradise and could be found inebriated and slapping backs at the annual Gold Nugget Days celebration. “The reason Paradise had no infrastructure is Lemke and the rest of the board wouldn’t consider charging the developer fees to pay for any,” Dolan said. “As crazy as it sounds, there was no zoning on the ridge. They had these categories, A-1, A-2, A-3, but they meant nothing. We called it zoning by septic tank.”

Figge could not recall a fire official from the state or county ever publicly warning the ridge communities that a housing boom in the middle of wildfire country was risking property and lives.

Dolan was 24 years old and living in downtown Chico when she ran for an open seat on the board. She faced off against Bernie Richter, a teetotaler who owned a liquor store that catered to the students at Chico State. Richter spoke in such rants that people said his spittle flew 3 feet. Dolan considered his bluster a show to obscure the underneath truth: Suburban sprawl wasn’t generating enough taxes and fees to fund sufficient roads, sewers, fire, and police services in Chico or Paradise. In the case of Chico, the city was subsidizing developers by covering the costs of the infrastructure. In the case of Paradise, the town was expanding without the necessary infrastructure. As each place grew, the new fringe was stealing services from the old fringe, all the while hollowing out the core. It took Dolan two tries to defeat Richter. Once seated, she took on the biggest cause she could find: protecting the fruit and nut orchards on the alluvial plain of the Sacramento River, which stood in the path of Chico’s future growth.

No city in the Central Valley had ever put down a line in the farm dirt and declared it off-limits to suburbia. “Scratch a farmer and find a developer inside” was the saying. Selling out to a developer was the only retirement plan most farmers knew. But Dolan decided to draw such a line right there in the rich loam on the west side of Chico. She wanted to call it the “red line,” but the local paper had already branded her a “radical socialist.” She called it the “green line” instead.

Dolan was raised Catholic and had gone to school with the Catholic sons of the big growers whose orchards would be shielded by her initiative. As the countywide vote drew near, a farmer named Art Gilman, a large, barrel-chested man who was regarded by his peers as decent and wise, invited her to speak to the local farm bureau. When she finished telling them all the reasons why Chico needed to stop developers from pouring concrete over “the most fertile soil in the world,” Mr. Gilman got up and spoke only a few words. “Gentlemen,” he said, “this young lady is right. We need to decide if we’re farmers or developers.” The farmers of Chico, saying goodbye to a big payday, stood behind her from that moment on.

The Ag Land Preservation Initiative didn’t prevail, but it came close enough, winning 40 percent of the vote in Butte County, to distress the board majority. Then Supervisor Lemke died in office, and Governor Jerry Brown replaced him with Len Fulton, one of the progressives who had moved to Paradise in the 1960s. He was a novelist and small book publisher who hailed from Massachusetts and had considerable persuasive powers. The tenor of the board quickly changed. In 1983, by a 3-2 vote, the green line became reality. Chico could sprawl eastward, all the way to Paradise if need be, but not westward.

A green line might have been drawn in Paradise, but there was no farmland left on the ridge to protect. Only one apple orchard still churned out juice, and the cannabis growers were just getting started. After years of wrangling, the residents had decided to make it official and declare themselves an incorporated town. They elected a mayor and four council members who ran as a slate — the “Qualified Five.” No sooner were they sworn into office than they fired the town manager, planning director, and police chief.

As much as Paradise wanted to steer its own fate, the Qualified Five were nervous about the prospect that the town’s first General Plan would bring new bureaucrats, new regulations, new taxes, and maybe even a sewer system to the ridge. Years of ugly recall elections, recalls all the way down to the Irrigation District Board, followed. Those who wanted no government feuded with those who wanted some and those who wanted more. One spunky elderly couple, Wilson and Mona Locke, got so fed up with seeing more houses added pell-mell to the forest that they sued Paradise in 1998 for its refusal to require sewers and roads to escape fire. Because of their objections, the Saddleback Canyon Estates Subdivision never took ground. But even as the town was forced to hire a professional staff of planners and more or less follow a set of regulations and zoning codes, it was too late. Thirty thousand residents were now living in the suburban equivalent of a tinderbox.

When the first of the big fires swept the foothills of Butte County in the summer of 2008, 60,000 acres burned and 74 houses were lost or heavily damaged on the edge of Paradise. By some twist, the flames did not cross the west branch of the Feather River and leap over to the Skyway. The smoke alone closed three of the four major evacuation routes from Paradise and Magalia. In the fire’s wake, the county grand jury issued a report asking questions that no state or local agency had ever asked of the Town Council or the Board of Supervisors:

How was it that no Assessment District had ever been formed on the ridge to levy fees in the name of fire safety? How was it that the main emergency route out of Paradise was lined with a thicket of pine trees and brush? How was it that the county’s new draft of the 2030 General Plan barely addressed fire risk and fire safety? And how was it that the General Plan was looking to put 3,400 more houses and 15,000 more people in the same path of deadly wildfire?

Richard Wilson, the former head of California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, on his property   PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHEW GENITEMPO


III.

I left the ridge and headed deeper into the woodlands of California, clutching a remarkable book called Fire in Sierra Nevada Forests, written in 2001 by wildlife biologist George Gruell, that documents the ecological changes to the mountain range since Chauncey Wright discovered his rock of gold. The photos date back as far as 1849 and depict great swaths of the Sierra with only a scattering of trees. The forest looks strangely forlorn. More than a century and a half later, these same locations reveal an entirely different Sierra. What was once sparse is now densely packed with pine, fir, cedar, and manzanita. A forest that supported 64 trees an acre in pre-settlement times now boasted 160 trees an acre. The modern eye sees this mountain-to-mountain vegetation as proof of the forest’s good health. Like the border-to-border almond trees in the valley below, vigor would appear to be nature at its most eloquent. But that is not what nature intended. “The landscapes of today may look attractively lush,” Gruell writes, “but the thickening forest threatens us with several problems.”

I thought I might find the spiritual progeny of John Muir, the Scot who regarded the mountain as temple, a prophet who could speak to the manifold ways we’ve screwed up the forest and complicated human existence in a place that, quite independent of global climate change, delivers its own violent fits of nature. I found instead Richard Wilson, an old cattleman who ran the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in the 1990s.

Scores of housing tracts popped up without sidewalks or buffers to provide a defensible space against fire. Roads came later, if they came at all. A municipal sewage system was never constructed.

He lived alone on Buck Mountain across the Eel River deep in the Mendocino woods, surrounded by pot growers. Years before, he had led the fight to defeat the massive dam that state bureaucrats wanted to build on the Eel to send more irrigation water to the cotton kings in Fresno; he had done battle with the timber barons, too, though he wasn’t able to stop the madness of their clear-cutting. And now he was closing in on 86 years old and never more cantankerous, bullheaded, and opinionated, or at least that was the view of his rancher son, who lived on his own remote spread an hour away. The elder Wilson wasn’t the second coming of Muir, but after 60 years as a heretic on his mountain, he was close enough.

Wilson: “Fire is a natural event in a healthy forest.”   PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHEW GENITEMPO

The book — part memoir, part history, part essay — that he is working on   PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHEW GENITEMPO

“I don’t think we could have managed the forests any worse,” he told me by way of greeting. His voice was strained, but he was still sturdy and rawboned, and only recently had his full head of hair gone to gray. Back in 1972, when he stood next to Governor Ronald Reagan to celebrate the state law that would protect the Eel, Wilson was the one who looked like the movie star. After a lifetime fighting battles both here and in Sacramento, he was feeling worn-out, he said, but one cause still roused him each morning: a saner and safer way of treating the forest.

“The Indians gave us the natural forest. Much of it was patchy, and the trees grew to differing heights,” he said. “This combination of open ground and uneven canopy kept the fires from raging. Now the fires are raging. They’re racing from forest to suburbia, and we’re scratching our heads trying to figure out why.

“Remember,” he said, “fire is a natural event in a healthy forest. It starts by lightning strike and usually burns itself out quickly. But before it does, it scorches the forest floor and thins out lower branches and shrubs. This helps tame the next fire. This allows new trees to generate. The timber companies could have worked inside that natural cycle and harvested a sustainable amount of wood. Instead, they were allowed to clear-cut the old growth and plant new trees one on top of the other.”

He was talking about how industrialized agriculture had come to the mountain. “So the trees are just another crop?” I asked.

“That’s right,” he said. “The growth is so uniform that when fire hits it, it becomes a blowtorch. The trees are nothing but matchsticks. Get a spark up, and she’s gone.”

“You’re saying we’ve turned our forest into easy kindling. But what about the kindling of all these houses?” I asked.

“Even though I was the head of state Forestry and Fire, I couldn’t stop it. When I left the agency, I wrote that these were ‘unprecedented patterns of human settlement’ in areas that John Muir had called God’s wildness. The settlement patterns resulted in perhaps the most rapid and massive disruption of natural fire regimes and watersheds ever experienced on earth.”

He wanted to make clear that he wasn’t an environmentalist. He had nothing against them — we ignored their warnings at our own peril — but he was an old-school conservationist. That’s how his father, an orthopedic surgeon in Los Angeles who developed a procedure to correct clubfeet, had raised him. A son of affluence, he attended the Thacher School in Ojai, where learning how to keep and ride a horse was part of the curriculum. In 1948, his father took him on his first hunting trip, to Buck Mountain, and they both fell in love with its beauty. Wealthy families who had streets named after them in San Francisco owned much of the mountain and summered there. His father bought a big enough spread that it took in valley, forest, and creek, and they hand-cut cedar, sugar pine, and Douglas fir to build a family cabin. He went to Dartmouth and majored in history and came back after his father’s death to run the ranch. He bought out the O’Farrells and their thousands of acres and grew hay and grazed cattle. It was the life he wanted to live.

To protect it, he fought off all takers, from the state of California, which tried to dam the Eel and cover his valley with a lake, to Harry Merlo, the timber magnate at Louisiana-Pacific Corporation who had grown up on the ridge above Paradise, where his Italian immigrant parents worked for the Diamond Match Company. It was Merlo who had brought the “Deep South” model of timbering to the forests of California, a “mow down the trees like they were alfalfa” mentality. And then in 1991, Pete Wilson, the new governor of California, came knocking on his door, giving him the choice to head one of three state agencies: Fish and Game, State Parks, or the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. He chose the last one.

“I had known Pete Wilson for a number of years from my time on the California Coastal Commission. He had a background in urban planning and was saying all the right things about managing suburban sprawl and bringing back a sustainable model of harvesting timber. I thought we saw eye to eye.”

He put together a 14-point plan that the governor endorsed. He wanted to curtail the harvesting of young trees 5-to-16 inches in diameter that produced inferior woods without grain, “pieces of noodles” in lumberman parlance, that were glued together and stacked on some rack at Home Depot. He favored a new harvesting standard (really, an old standard) that called for trees to be 30-to-36 inches across. The rotation between replanting and harvesting would no longer be every 30 years but every 60 to 80 years. Young and old trees properly spaced would once again bring an uneven canopy to the forest. Jobs at the sawmill would be saved. Houses and lives, too.

None of the reforms came to be, of course. Wilson, the forestry director, watched Wilson, the governor, cave in to the usual pressures of builders, developers, and timber companies. The governor quit talking about state-mandated urban-growth boundaries that would keep sprawl from gobbling up more prime farmland and invading more of the Sierra. Harry Merlo was quite free to harvest his young trees until none of them was left, which he proceeded to do as Louisiana-Pacific vacated California. Sawmills up and down the Sierra shuttered. Environmental regulations had something to do with that. Mismanagement of the forest had a lot more.

A forest that supported 64 trees an acre in pre-settlement times now boasted 160 trees an acre. The modern eye sees this as proof of the forest’s good health. But that is not what nature intended.

Then, on his director’s watch, the big fires began to erupt: the Oakland-Berkeley Hills Fire in 1991 that killed 25 people, injured 150 others, and destroyed 3,000 houses; the Old Topanga Fire two years later that scorched 18,000 acres, destroyed 359 houses, left three people dead, and would have burned down Pepperdine University, if not for the response of his firefighters. The media dubbed these “fires of the future” because they came amid extended drought and were fueled by high winds and the tinder of houses. But as Wilson and his staff studied the fires more closely, he could see that their oddly linear pattern of ignition clusters corresponded to major electrical power lines. He then dug into archives and found that the same Berkeley Hills had been the scene of two previous wildfires nearly identical to the one in 1991: a wildfire in 1970 that destroyed 37 houses in a single afternoon and another in 1923, set off by a spark from an electrical line and carried by high winds, that burned 584 houses to the ground.

“These weren’t outlier events,” Wilson said. “These same spots had a history of fire. They had burned before and were destined to burn again. If you charted it out, we weren’t having far more wildfires than in the past. But the wildfires we were experiencing were far more deadly and destructive, and that had to do with mismanaging the forest and building communities in the wildland-urban interface. The state’s population was exploding in the very areas most susceptible to wildfires.”

From 1990 to 2010, the number of houses built in the wildland-urban interface grew by 1 million in California. The number of people rose by nearly 3 million. One out of every four Californians — more than 10 million people — now lived in the zone of wildfire. They were scattered across Butte, Shasta, Contra Costa, Alameda, and San Luis Obispo counties. More than half resided in Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange, and San Diego counties. The 2020 census is expected to show a new protrusion of growth in the path of peril, even as six of the ten most destructive wildfires in state history have taken place since 2010.

Wilson’s old department remained as powerless as ever to stop suburbia’s march on the woodlands. Climate change or not, the state of California continued to exercise almost no voice in county land-use decisions. The most the fire agency could muster was that locals “should” include a consideration of fire danger when approving growth. Then something happened inside the agency that was even more telling, Wilson said. The department responded to the expanding footprint of risk by expanding right along with it. Today, it calls itself what it has become: Cal Fire. The khaki uniforms of the old forestry days were gone. The flat-brim hats were long gone, too. The men and women of Cal Fire now wore the navy blue of firefighters everywhere.

The forest near Wilson’s ranch   PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHEW GENITEMPO

The change happened right after Wilson left Sacramento in 1999 to return to Buck Mountain. It wasn’t simply a shift in colors. It was a shift in mission. Firefighters on the front lines of a blaze had grown tired of taking orders from forestry rangers who had less experience but a more lofty ranking. This hierarchy was the result of an old policy that placed a premium on managing the forest and preventing wildfires. The firefighters, boasting a new ethic, formed their own union, Local 2881, and bargained for their own workweek: 72 hours over a three-day period with a compensation package far more lucrative than the foresters’. The ranger soon found himself a second-class citizen in a department he once commanded. The services he performed — coordinating prescribed burns, protecting watersheds from the wrack of clear-cuts, reducing so-called fuel loads in mountain communities — were curtailed. As rangers joined up with the ranks of better-paid firefighters, their numbers dwindled to maybe 250, even as the number of firefighters inside the department jumped to 7,000.

By the early 2000s, the structuring of California firefighting into a disaster-industrial complex had been fully realized. Today, the war-like mobilization of firefighting is nothing if not epic.

By the early 2000s, the structuring of California firefighting into a disaster-industrial complex — the deification of “first responders,” as they became known in the years after 9/11 — had been fully realized. Today, the war-like mobilization of firefighting is nothing if not epic. Each battle required air tankers, helicopters, bulldozers, all-terrain fire engines, thousands of firefighters and inmate conservation workers, hundreds of fire stations, and a statewide communications system. “Fire suppression” was now a $1.1 billion line item in the department’s budget — a new record. This didn’t fully include the $300 mil­lion for a dozen new Black Hawk helicopters to replace the fleet of Vietnam-era Hueys needed to transport fire crews in and out of steep terrain.

As I ticked off the costs of the Black Hawks and the seven C-130 Hercules cargo planes that would be retrofitted to each carry up to 4,000 gallons of flame retardant, Wilson reminded me that fighting wildfires is chiefly a summer-to-fall occupation. To justify its high costs, the department had to figure out a way to make itself essential throughout the year. This was how it evolved into a 24/7 provider of emergency services to the sprawling mountain communities. Cal Fire manned fire stations throughout the wildland-urban interface. The paramedics responding to heart attacks wore Cal Fire patches on their blue. In other words, the department existed as a partner with towns such as Paradise. Instead of trying to slow down the suburbanization of forestlands, Wilson said, the department served the growth — to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year in funding.

“It’s a moneymaker,” Wilson said. “When it came to growth, the department and the state of California held back their criticism. And we’ve made wrong turn after wrong turn. What happened to Paradise is the culmination of the errs of our ways.”

A PG&E substation near the Crestmoor neighborhood in San Bruno   PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHEW GENITEMPO


IV.

During my first visit to Paradise, Joan Degischer remembered getting a phone call from PG&E on November 7, the evening before the fire. The short, recorded message advised her that power to the ridge would likely be shut off the next day. In the wake of a five-year drought that had killed tens of millions of trees in the Sierra, the weather forecast was predicting low humidity and winds gusting to 50 mph — perfect wildfire conditions.

As a precaution against “increasing fire risk,” PG&E had activated its Emergency Operations Center on November 6 and over the next two days directed multiple phone calls, emails, text messages, and press releases to tens of thousands of customers. Across Butte County and eight nearby counties, residents were braced for a “proactive power shutoff” that could extend for a day or more.

The morning of November 8 came, and the winds were barreling down the canyon, but the power was never shut off. At 7:56 a.m., more than an hour after the wildfire had begun, PG&E was still advising residents that it was considering the option of turning off the power “due to potential extreme fire danger.” But the electricity stayed on until the blaze itself, growing by a football field every second, took it down.

As scores of people were being burned alive and thousands more were frantically fleeing a ridge overstuffed with traffic, the utility decided to compose a tweet. It was sent out at 3:14 p.m. and informed residents not of the fire and its path but the reasons why PG&E had decided not to turn off the power. Four months later, in the dust of ashes, the tweet not only sounded cold-hearted but read like the first act in the utility’s effort to cover its tracks. “PG&E has determined that it will not proceed with plans today for a Public Safety Power Shutoff in portions of 8 Northern CA counties, as weather conditions did not warrant this safety measure,” the tweet stated. “We want to thank our customers for their understanding.”

The intersection in Crestmoor where the 2010 explosion occurred   PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHEW GENITEMPO

By the time I left the ridge in early March, PG&E was conceding that one of its aging metal towers, which stood 100 feet tall in the canyon 25 miles beyond Paradise, was so decrepit that a live wire had broken free of its grasp on the early morning of November 8. This was the spark that birthed the deadliest wildfire in California history. That the culprit was the nation’s biggest utility — its service area stretching 70,000 square miles from Bakersfield to the Oregon border, with 100,000 miles of distribution lines and 16 million customers — meant that whatever punishment came to it would reverberate far and wide. It was no small corporate disgrace when the monopoly, whose grab reached back more than a century and scarcely knew comeuppance, filed for bankruptcy a few months after the fire. The utility now found itself in multiple courtrooms trying to stave off $30 billion in liabilities for the devastation of Paradise and a series of earlier catastrophic fires it had caused.

From 1990 to 2010, the number of houses built in the wildland-urban interface grew by 1 million in California. More than 10 million people now lived in the zone of wildfire.

In 2015, court records showed, PG&E’s equipment ignited 435 fires, including a blaze traced to a single spindly gray pine that the utility had failed to remove. The tree leaned over and touched a high-voltage power line, sparking a wildfire that burned across Calaveras County, scorching 70,868 acres, destroying 549 homes, and killing two people.

In 2016, the same year PG&E neglected to cut down 4,000 to 6,000 trees identified as “hazards,” the utility recorded 362 wildfires of varying sizes.

Then in a single month in 2017, the utility’s repeated failures to manage danger — risks common to freighting power across great swaths of rugged terrain to deliver light and gas — caused death and destruction on a scale that had seemed unimaginable. On or around the night of October 8, nearly a dozen fires broke out in Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, Solano, Lake, Butte, Calaveras, Nevada, and Yuba counties. The flames kept raging until they killed 22 people, destroyed almost 4,000 houses and businesses, and consumed nearly 200,000 acres. The so-called North Bay Fires would set a record for ravage that would hold exactly 11 months.

Now PG&E’s legal team, led by a $1,100-an-hour Manhattan attorney named Kevin Orsini, gathered in a U.S. District courtroom in downtown San Francisco, awaiting another rap on the knuckles from federal Judge William Alsup. The 73-year-old Mississippian, who had gone to Harvard Law and clerked for Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas before a career in private practice and the Justice Department led to the bench, was presiding over an unusual hearing. PG&E had been deemed a corporate felon for its role in the deaths of eight people who were killed in 2010 when a company gas line blew up a neighborhood in San Bruno. As part of its ongoing probation, PG&E vowed not to commit another federal, state, or local crime. What to deem the 109 additional dead bodies — victims of wildfires ignited by the utility over the past four years — if not evidence of more crimes?

“There is one very clear-cut pattern here: that PG&E is starting these fires,” Judge Alsup said. “The drought did not start the fire. Global warming did not start the fire. PG&E started it. What do we do? Does the judge just turn a blind eye and say, ‘PG&E, continue your business as usual. Kill more people by starting more fires’?”

“We have an inherently dangerous product is the fact,” conceded Orsini, a partner at Cravath, Swaine & Moore, one of the nation’s most prestigious law firms. “We have electricity running through high-power lines in areas that are incredibly susceptible to wildfire conditions.”

“Do you know how much of California burned down last year?” Alsup asked. “1.6 percent burned down last year. 1.6 percent. The year before, it was 1.3 percent. That’s almost 3 percent of California burned up in two years. This is an emergency.”

“PG&E understands and accepts that it has a credibility problem,” Orsini replied. “Which is why I couldn’t stand up here and say to Your Honor, ‘Trust us. We’ve got it.’ ”

In state courtrooms across Northern California, a handful of litigators from three law firms were representing close to 1,000 survivors who had lost family members or houses or both in the 2017 and 2018 wildfires. In their filings, each attorney traced the historic blazes to a culture of mismanagement, corruption, and cover-up that had taken hold inside PG&E decades before. A pattern of venality, they argued, began in the company’s early years and became more recalcitrant in the 1980s and 1990s, when PG&E, with the connivance of the California Public Utilities Commission, its watchdog, made a decision to place profits and bonuses to top executives — and dividends to shareholders — over safety.

There was the gas main that exploded in downtown San Francisco in 1981, forcing 30,000 people to evacuate as PG&E took nine hours to shut off the valve by hand. There was the gas line that exploded in Santa Rosa in 1991 and killed two people. There was the Rough and Ready Fire in Nevada County in 1994 caused by PG&E’s failure to prune back vegetation surrounding its power lines, destroying 12 homes and a historic schoolhouse. The utility had diverted $495 million from its tree-trimming budget to increase corporate profits. It was found guilty of 739 counts of criminal negligence and required to pay $24 million in penalties.

There was the 1999 Pendola Fire that burned for 11 days and scorched more than 3,800 acres in the Tahoe and Plumas national forests, requiring PG&E to settle with the U.S. Forest Service for $14.7 million. There was the Fred’s Fire, the Sims Fire, the Power Fire, each one in 2004, that together burned more than 22,000 acres of national forests and forced the utility to reach into its pocket for $75 million more in settlements. And there was the PG&E gas leak in a Rancho Cordova neighborhood in 2008 that exploded and killed one person and injured several others. The investigation found that PG&E had installed a pipe prone to cracks and failed to dispatch a properly trained crew to fix the leak.

Just off the Skyway in Paradise   PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHEW GENITEMPO

“When you connect the dots, you see a culture of arrogance in which the most important thing is the bottom line,” Frank Pitre, an attorney representing dozens of victims, told me. “Time and again, PG&E delays the necessary fixes, callously disregards the safety of California communities, and finds creative ways to not comply with the law. Billions of dollars that should have been invested in infrastructure instead went to pay an 8 per­cent return to its investors. That is their gold standard.” It was fiction that the California Public Utilities Commission exercised any watchdog role over PG&E, he said. “They don’t have the resources, they don’t have the trained personnel or mindset, to monitor and audit PG&E’s compliance with safety regulations. PG&E can literally get away with murder.”

If I wanted to fully understand the culture at PG&E, he told me, I needed to go back a decade to the tragedy that struck not the forests of California but a suburban neighborhood on a hillside overlooking the San Francisco Bay. “That’s where you’ll find the fingerprints,” he said. “That’s where you’ll find the DNA.”

On the evening of September 9, 2010, where Earl Avenue intersected with Glenview Drive in the community of San Bruno, a PG&E pipeline ferrying natural gas exploded. The blast knocked houses off foundations and instantly killed several residents. A giant fireball leaped out of the crater and began chasing other residents as they ran from their houses to a safe spot up the hill. The fireball split into two towering columns that hovered above them, roaring and vibrating. The broiler effect stole oxygen from their lungs and movement from their feet. They staggered up the hill and watched the rest of their houses go up in flames. Many did not realize until hours later that heat alone could singe their hair and cook their skin. Eight residents of the Crestmoor subdivision perished, dozens more suffered burns, and 38 houses were destroyed.

Back in 1956, when Crestmoor was a pasture being bulldozed to build a suburb, the steel pipeline, 30 inches in diameter, was put in the ground with a flaw. PG&E work crews did such a poor job welding the pipe, federal investigators found, that the seams began to show cracks. The cracks grew wider over the years, especially when the utility increased gas pressure inside the line to higher-than-normal levels. Time and again, PG&E failed to detect the leaks because its inspectors were poorly trained and using out-of-date equipment and falsifying records.

Two decades before the blast, the same line had sprung a leak 9 miles away. It took PG&E months to discover these cracks. Fixing the line then became a top priority for the utility, at least on paper. In 2007, PG&E listed the line as posing a “high risk” because of its “likelihood of failure” in an urban area. That same year, PG&E won approval from the state’s public utilities commission to spend $5 million of ratepayer money to replace a section of the pipe. The money was collected from customers, but the work was never done. Three years later, PG&E won a second approval from the utilities commission to spend another $5 million in ratepayer money to fix the pipe. The money was collected from customers once again, but the work was never done.

Only after the San Bruno tragedy did the commission perform its duties sufficiently to discover that PG&E had diverted $100 million in gas and safety operation funds to “non-safety” spending. This included millions of dollars in pay raises for its executives. “Opportunities were missed that could have and should have prevented this tragedy,” Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said at the conclusion of its yearlong inquiry. “It was not a question of if this pipe would burst, but when.”

Nine years after the explosion, on a late spring day, the neighborhood appeared flawlessly rebuilt: a pocket park across from where the crater had been, putting greens for front lawns, and new two-story houses as tall as the flames were. I was strolling up Glenview Drive with Gene and Kris O’Neil, who had raised their twin daughters, Mary and Colleen, on this block until the fire took their home. Mary had moved to Oregon and was now married. Colleen, whose arms had been scarred by the heat, was living in San Francisco. After years of psychological counseling, the girls had found a physical distance, if not an emotional one, from the fire. Their parents were harder to read.

The state continued to exercise almost no voice in county land-use decisions. The most the fire agency could muster was that locals “should” include a consideration of fire danger when approving growth.

In the immediate wake of the disaster, Kris returned to the crater each month with other survivors, nearly all of them planning to use their settlement money from PG&E to build a dream house where the old one stood. Those visits, though, left her with an eerie feeling that their two old cats, missing since the fire, haunted the neighborhood. Yet she and Gene counted too many dear friends in San Bruno to leave. So they bought a single-story house a mile away that was nearly identical to the old house and tried erasing from their minds the route to and from Glenview.

The new block hardly resembled the old block. “If you brought me here in the trunk of a car and let me out, I wouldn’t know where I was,” said Gene, a small, fit man who had just turned 70.

He was driving home from work that September evening, he recounted, when he spotted the plume of smoke and wondered if a plane had crashed. Kris was at home with the girls, lying on her bed and flipping through a Nordstrom catalog, when the earth suddenly shuddered and clods of dirt rained down from the sky. Her first thought was that it was an earthquake because their house sat practically atop the San Andreas Fault. But this was a fire that reached a quarter-way up the hill and was burning their house and went no farther.

It took PG&E an hour and a half to shut off the valve to the line. All the while, gas kept pouring out of the crater, feeding the tower of flames. When it was over, the only thing that remained of 1110 Glenview was the chimney thrusting into sky. On its shoulders, two brass candlesticks passed down from Kris’s mother were left standing.

“See that tree up the hill,” she said, pointing. “That’s the one we had to reach to be safe. But like one of those nightmares, my body wouldn’t move. I had to will myself to put one foot in front of the other.”

Kris and Gene had met on St. Patrick’s Day in 1978 in front of an Irish pub called Beardsley’s in nearby Burlingame. Gene was wearing a button that said “Kiss My Blarney Stone.” Kris, who was three-quarters Irish, thought to herself that he’d better be Irish with a greeting like that. He told her his last name was O’Neil, and she could hear the blue-collar Connecticut still gravelly in his voice. She was working in advertising at the San Mateo Times, and he was about to be named executive director of the San Bruno Chamber of Commerce. They dated for five years and then married.

His job put him in close contact with various PG&E executives, who saw the value in having the president of a local chamber of commerce as an ally. In the early 1980s, when PG&E needed to push back against protesters alleging flaws in the company’s design of the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, they asked Gene for help. They put him and other community leaders on a bus and sent them down to Avila Beach for a two-day, all-expenses-paid tour of the project. He thought it odd that PG&E had used the same set of blueprints to buttress two different reactors, but he promoted the plant just the same. He was such an effective advocate that PG&E sent him down to Diablo Canyon again, this time aboard a company jet.

“I was trotted out to speak of the good deeds of PG&E,” he said. “In my defense, I didn’t think the people at PG&E would be lying to me.” This was before the activist Erin Brockovich revealed PG&E’s decades-long cover-up of contaminating the groundwater in Hinkley, the tiny Mojave town. “They were decent community supporters back then. You almost thought of them as firemen and policemen. If a ballfield in San Bruno needed new lights, we knew to call on PG&E.”

Only after the San Bruno tragedy did the public utilities commission discover that PG&E had diverted $100 million in gas and safety operation funds to “non-safety” spending.

As the newspapers began digging into the San Bruno tragedy, detailing the actions and inactions of the utility and the public utilities commission prior to the explosion, the O’Neils felt betrayed. PG&E President Christopher Johns told a local congresswoman that he couldn’t produce any documents for one-third of the company’s pipelines in urban areas. Were the documents nonexistent, lost, stolen, shredded? PG&E wouldn’t say. Some documents, it was later revealed, had been written in erasable ink.

Then came the discovery that the major pipelines belonging to PG&E had racked up more infractions in the six years before San Bruno than the rest of the state’s major pipelines combined. Yet the utilities commission never levied a single fine on the company. Instead, the commission chose to send letters reminding PG&E of its duty to comply with safety laws. When the executive director of the commission wrote one such letter to PG&E President Johns, he used three ghost writers: two PG&E vice presidents and their lawyer. The utility, in other words, was writing the very regulatory letters it was receiving.

After the O’Neils reached a settlement with PG&E — a deal they would not be permitted to disclose — the utility unveiled its newest multimillion-dollar advertising campaign. It featured not actors but PG&E workers who lived in the communities they served.  “When those commercials come on the TV — ‘We’re your neighbors and we care’ — you know what we do? We do this,” Kris said, gesturing with her middle finger. “They’re using the people who are least guilty to clean up the image of those who are the most guilty, and they’re charging us higher rates to pay for it.”

Gene became hopeful recently when Michael Picker, the head of the utilities commission, publicly wondered whether PG&E was too big and needed to be broken up. The commission had fined the utility a record $1.6 billion for its repeated violations of state and federal pipeline safety standards. Gene wanted to believe the fines, if not the shame of San Bruno, might finally alter the way PG&E did business. Then the wildfires, one after the other, erupted. He now thought that PG&E, left to its own devices, would never change. “I mean, they’ve burned down a whole damn city,” he said. “How many more dead bodies is it going to take?”

This was the same question that Judge Alsup was now throwing in the face of PG&E’s team of attorneys. Alsup ruled that the utility had violated the terms of a probation imposed after being convicted of six crimes in the San Bruno case. He then ordered its directors and top executives to board a bus and ride the Skyway and glimpse the gutting of Paradise, if not as an act of contrition then at least to remind themselves of their duties before the new fire season arrived. “The emergency will be on us, and will we see another headline, ‘PG&E Has Done It Again. They’ve Burned Down Another Town’? ” he asked.

Yet for all his stern talk, Alsup refrained from imposing any further conditions on PG&E to help protect the public from potential crimes in the future. To prod Alsup, the plaintiffs’ attorneys filed hundreds of pages of complaints, declarations, and memorandums of points that echoed the same theme: PG&E’s refusal to heed the lessons of the past led to the burning down of Paradise.

PG&E had failed to implement fixes adopted by the state’s other two big utilities, San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison, in the aftermath of devastating wildfires in 2003, 2007, and 2015. These fixes — installing state-of-the-art wind-measuring stations, adopting a policy of shutting off power during high-risk periods, replacing wood poles with metal poles, dispatching teams of trained arborists to clear out trees too close to high-voltage lines — were preventing wildfires and saving lives.

Between 2014 and 2017, court documents showed, San Diego Gas & Electric ignited only 109 wildfires, with just one greater than 300 acres. During the same period, Southern California Edison caused 344 fires, with seven greater than 300 acres. PG&E, on the other hand, had sparked 1,552 wildfires, with nine greater than 300 acres. Because PG&E took in a bigger swath of California that contained far more dead and dying trees, the utility insisted that it was burdened with a far more perilous mission. If that was the case, attorneys for the plaintiffs countered, it was even more unconscionable that PG&E had waited so long to begin to implement the same fixes.

“In the last five years, $4.5 billion of dividends have been paid out to the owners of PG&E,” Judge Alsup said. “Some of that money could have been used to cut and trim the very trees that started these fires. So why is it PG&E says all the time, ‘Safety is our number one thing? Safety. Safety. Safety.’ But safety is not your number one thing.”

“It’s not a function of the money that’s going out in dividends,” Orsini, the utility’s lead attorney, responded. “It’s a function of the qualified tree workers. PG&E has been trying to find the people to come in and do this work and get it done sooner than eight years from now. They haven’t been able to find the personnel.”

“I don’t buy that there’s not enough people,” Alsup countered. “I don’t believe you’ve exhausted the supply of people who know what they’re doing…. I should just order you to do that.”

“Your Honor, I don’t believe we need an order, because we’re out there doing it right now.”

Then Judge Alsup addressed the choice that faced PG&E on the early morning of November 8, 2018: to shut off the power and create a safety risk for a small number of residents — those on ventilators, those whose cellphones had died, those who couldn’t open their garage doors to drive their vehicles? Or to not shut off the power and possibly cause a spark that could light a wildfire that could kill scores of people?

“De-energizing is a safety risk,” Orsini told the judge. “It’s just a fact. How do you balance the safety risk of someone not being able to get the phone call telling them to flee a wildfire versus stopping a wildfire that kills 85 people? How do you balance that?”

“Well, yes,” Alsup replied. “But if the fire burns up the system anyway, then they’re going to lose the power anyhow. Maybe it was the right judgment. I don’t know. I don’t know. But if that power had been turned off, that fire wouldn’t have started, at least the same way.”

It was the closest the courtroom would come to the question of tragedy’s construction, how circumstances large and small over decades — acts of arrogance and greed, blunder and corruption, neglect, and design — could fasten upon each other and link up with acts of nature in perfect continuity and turn a company’s risk into a community’s erasure. Because the events that disordered our lives relied on such a diabolical ordering, it made us believe in the possibility of destiny. It was meant to be, we told ourselves. But it wasn’t destiny that burned down Paradise.

On this day, no such pronouncement came down from the bench. In a federal courtroom not 2 miles from the headquarters of PG&E, the judge’s equivocation would be the last word.

The east side of Paradise  PHOTOGRAPH BY KRISTINE POTTER


V.

It was day, and it was night. Kathy Peppas was running down the Skyway, clutching the hand of her 7-year-old granddaughter, Khloe, as the smoke went from gray to black. Embers and pinecones, the oil inside sizzling, whizzed past their heads. Like little arsonists, they were taking the fire to the next ground, and the next ground. Peppas, 53 years old and fit, could hear the bullets shooting off from all the private stockpiles of ammo and guns in Paradise. Tanks of propane across the ridge were blowing up, too. “Count the explosions,” she instructed Khloe, thinking it might take her granddaughter’s mind off the flames. The girl counted to 45 explosions, uttered close to a dozen prayers, and then told her grandmother that she had to pee. “Pee on yourself, honey,” she told her. “It’s all right.”

Both sides of the Skyway were clogged with cars headed in the same direction: down the hill and, if they were lucky, out into the open toward Chico. Others like Peppas had abandoned their cars and were now running for their lives. A lone fire engine rode up the ridge, the firefighters shouting at motorists to pull over to the side so they could get by. Frustrated, the men in blue decided to unleash their hoses right there. They shot a squirt-gun stream of water into a forest of burning trees. The absurdity almost made Peppas laugh. Her house, the houses belonging to her son, her mother, her sister and brother, her in-laws and nephews and niece, a dozen family houses in all, were going up in flames. So was the church of the Latter-day Saints where she’d worshipped since she was Khloe’s age. It took nearly three hours for members of her family, two in their 80s, another a baby, to find safety.

A homeless camp in Magalia

The fire had displaced 25,000 people. Some had fled to Texas and Florida. More than 1,000 were living in Sacramento and Los Angeles and towns and cities in between. As many as 20,000 had relocated to Chico and Oroville and were stuffed into trailers, hotels and motels, apartments and rentals, and houses belonging to family and friends. Those who had no savings and no insurance, and no relatives to take them in, were wandering the streets of Chico as part of a legion of homeless. They were joined by other homeless men and women who weren’t survivors of the fire but were survivors of some other misfortune someplace else and had descended on Chico because of all the charity. The acts of human giving — free shelter, free groceries, free clothes, free psychological counseling — went on for months and never seemed to morph into giver’s fatigue. For the fortunate ones who carried insurance, almost all their costs would be covered. More than a handful of proprietors and landlords understood this, of course, and were jacking up the prices of dwellings by 50 percent and more. Houses in Chico listed on the market at $250,000 before the fire were now selling in bidding wars for $450,000.

In early March, PG&E was conceding that one of its aging metal towers was so decrepit that a live wire had broken free of its grasp on the early morning of November 8.

Peppas and her husband, Tom, a fly-fishing guide, bought a trailer and parked it at a house in Chico that belonged to friends. They had planned on spending the rest of their lives in Paradise, but it was going to take a year, at least, for the ash and other contaminants to be removed and clean water to be restored and the lots cleared for rebuilding. Most of the evacuees she encountered in Chico were sure of one thing: They weren’t coming back. There was too much uncertainty, they told her, and that didn’t count the next wildfire. The local chamber of commerce, building trades, churches, and civic clubs were trying mightily to persuade them otherwise. Each weekday, as Peppas drove up the ridge to her office job at a school untouched by the fire, she read the signs planted along the Skyway: “Rebuild. Recoup. Recover.” “The Best Is Yet to Come.” “Don’t Stop Believing.” “We Are Ridge Strong.”

Then one by one, her four sons, who ranged in age from 24 to 32, reached out to tell her what Paradise had meant to them and that living anywhere else was unthinkable. The oldest, Kasey, who was Khloe’s father and a builder, had lost his house on the upper ridge to the fire. He and his wife were so determined to rebuild that they were going to live in a trailer on their scorched ground for however long it took. Because of the toxins, Khloe and her baby brother, Kaleb, would stay for the time being with Grandma and Grandpa. Kevin, the next oldest and a software engineer, called from Tucson and said that he and his wife and their two children were moving back home, too. Colton, the third son, checked in from Boise and reported that he and his wife and their baby son would be packing up and joining them on the ridge. Carson, the youngest, an accounting student at Brigham Young University, pledged to graduate and find a job in Chico and build his first house in Paradise.

Kathy Peppas sitting with her grandchildren: “We’re never going to be who we were, what we were.”

“Right after the fire, I thought for a few minutes that we should live somewhere else,” Peppas said. “But where would that be? I don’t know how to live anywhere else. All the people close to me are Paradise people, and now the rest of my family was coming back. You have to understand what life here was all about. When Kevin got married a few years before the fire, we had the wedding reception at the church, and the food, the music, the decorations, all of it, was handled by friends and family. They built a dance floor right there on the parking lot. From 7 in the morning to 11 at night, they didn’t stop working. How do you find that somewhere else?”

She took on the chore of resettling the family. She found her mother a house on the upper ridge to buy, and then she found her father-in-law a house on the lower ridge to buy. In late May, she and Tom and Khloe and Kaleb moved into a house in lower Paradise near the lake on the Feather Canyon side. It was three bedrooms and one and a half bathrooms with a wide green lawn out front. Everything around it, all the way to the canyon, the fire had erased. “The fence, some of the stucco, and parts of the overhang were burned,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense why the whole house didn’t go up in flames. It’s this little miracle place.”

West of the Skyway

The town was debating how it should rise again. Council sessions were consumed with questions of existence: How big should a reborn Paradise be? Would a sewer system at last be dug? Would mobile homes by the hundreds be allowed back in? Or would the town be a place mostly for affluent retirees and middle-class workers who had jobs down the hill and could afford the more expensive real estate? In June, PG&E settled with the county of Butte and the town of Paradise for $569 million. How much infrastructure and civic building would that money buy? Could a new Paradise be made safer from wildfire? Governor Gavin Newsom, in a departure from Governor Jerry Brown, was calling out PG&E and pledging to reform the public utilities commission. Cal Fire, whose two most recent directors had backgrounds in forest management, was hiring more on-the-ground crews and spending more resources to clear out brush and trim trees. There was even talk of bringing back the ancient practice of controlled burns as a force. In the same breath, state leaders were trying to find new ways to build a million more affordable houses and apartments. To what safe zones we could send these Californians was a complication not so easily addressed.

Peppas believed that she and the other survivors owed it to the 85 dead to fashion a considerably smaller Paradise that was better designed to handle wildfire’s peril. She understood that the danger could never be fully taken out of the ridge and that climate change would make life there more of a gamble. Residents would need to pay higher fees to local government and higher premiums to insurers to help cover the risk. The new houses likely would be built with metal roofs and sprinkler systems. Roads would be paved where none existed before. Already, thousands of ponderosa pines and cedars had been removed. Half the trees that used to shade their old lot were gone. “It takes a while to get used to the light,” she said.

The ring that Peppas found among the ashes of her old home

Not long after the fire, in the null of the old house, she dug through the ashes where her bedroom had been and found one of her rings, a lavender stone with veins of yellow. Only it wasn’t the same. The fire had turned the lavender to cream and the variegations to smoky gray. The ring — she wore it every day — had become the way she thought of herself, her children and grandchildren, and their town. “We’re never going to be who we were, what we were. The fire changed us,” she said. “What we went through made us different.”

I said goodbye to her on the ridge and drove back down into the valley, past the charred forest and the green line of Chico and the old orchards and dairy farms. The year had been a wet one. As I skirted the delta supercharged with snowmelt, I imagined the midsummer of 1839 when John Sutter, fugitive from Switzerland, father of the California myth, got lost in the tule swamps looking for the mouth of the Sacramento River. When he finally found it, he thought nothing of locating his New Helvetia, the future state capital, in the embrace of not one river but two, the worst floodplain in all of California. The city of Sacramento, girdled by levees and erected on a 12-foot bed of borrowed earth, its gilded statehouse stabbing at the sun, could not have looked more fitting, and imperiled, 180 years later.

One of the signs planted alongside the road that connects Paradise and Chico

MARK ARAX is a contributing writer to California Sunday. His book, The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California, was published in May. His last piece for the magazine, “A Kingdom From Dust,” was the winner of the James Beard Award for Feature Reporting in 2019.

KRISTINE POTTER resides in Nashville. She is a recent recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship as well as the winner of the 2019/2020 Grand Prix Images Vevey.

MATTHEW GENITEMPO is currently living in Marfa, Texas. His first monograph, Jasper, was shortlisted for the 2018 Paris Photo/Aperture Foundation First PhotoBook Prize and was published by Twin Palms Publishers.