Today I went to Paradise, California, where search and rescue teams are accompanied by cadaver dogs, sifting through what’s left of homes and businesses. Wildfires, like tornadoes, act capriciously. Two houses on one side of a street look untouched, while across the street there’s nothing left but mangled metal and ash. Overall Paradise is just one giant scene of devastation, though. Up close you can see what remains of a lot of kitchens, because the ovens are still kind of around, and occasionally items survived, like couple of ceramic mugs. I spotted a yellow bumble bee mug because it was the only shock of color among so much white and gray.
Every survivor you talk to tells a harrowing story. A lot of them seem sanguine when they say to me, “Home’s gone. All gone.” They note the tunnel of fire, or a ring of fire that they drove through to escape down. They tell me about cars exploding behind them. The traffic as they tried to get out. The lone evacuees on the side of the street with their dogs that they encouraged to jump onto the beds of their pickups. Their neighbors running — running — from the heat and flames. To imagine that night is to imagine hell. And somehow so many people actually made it out alive.
Last week, in the first days of the fire, I was in Boston hosting Here and Now, our national program that originates from WBUR. I was in the comfort of a studio, talking with people from Butte County over a phone connection. We could all hear the weariness in their voices. The reporter in me thought, what am I doing in a studio? I have to be there.
I eventually made it here 10 days after the flames first raged. It took me awhile because I had fill-in hosting duty for a podcast, too. Last night the camaraderie and connection was clear for the three of us who were here for NPR: We are all former foreign correspondents who had been in the muck and wanted to be here. For Kelly and Leila, who both lived so long in the Middle East — they’d seen so many towns felled by armies and saw the parallels. “Parts of Paradise look like Fallujah,” Leila said to me. This is the kind of story that had it happened overseas, we’d probably be there for weeks.
This is California’s most destructive and deadly fire yet, but this is also part of a much larger story about climate change and its refugees. It’s a migration story. And it’ll continue.