Below is a guest reading list from Daniel A. Gross, a journalist and public radio producer who lives in Boston.
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As a teenager growing up in Southern California, I remember looking up one day and seeing a fine white powder falling from the sky. It was the middle of summer, and for a moment I wondered, absurdly, if it was snowing. The flakes crumbled between my fingers and left streaks like flour on my clothes. They were ash.
Every summer, swaths of California burn. Grass, brush, trees and even houses go up in smoke. In the worst years, they drift back to earth in the form of a thin gray coating on windshields and awnings. On local TV, between late-night car chases and tanned weather reporters who know every synonym for sunny, I remember images of hillsides that glowed orange and black.
It’s fire season again. So far, nearly 30 major wildfires have torn through 12 states. As this year’s blazes seem to reach their yearly peak, here are four stories about risk and resilience in the face of fire. They’re a glimpse into the lives of those who fight fires, those who flee them, and those who rebuild, literally, from the ashes.
In 1978, Joan Didion wrote in her notebook: “Beautiful country burn again.” The line came from a Robinson Jeffers poem, and almost every summer a new fire brought it to mind. In an essay for the New Yorker, later collected in her book After Henry, Didion lays out a sort of philosophy of living with fire. She visits the Los Angeles County Fire Department and describes the “essentially military” logic of firefighting. But her real subject is a peculiar feeling, one that she and her neighbors experienced every summer: the quiet, gnawing certainty that eventually a fire will come.
Before Norman Maclean was a writer and professor, he fought fires for the Forest Service. When he was a teenager, he nearly died in a Montana wildfire. “It came so close it sounded as if it were cracking bones, and mine were the only bones around,” he writes. It’s through that memory of terror, thirst and exhaustion that Maclean begins his book Young Men and Fire. Thirteen “smokejumpers”—firefighters who parachute into the wilderness—died in the 1949 Mann Gulch fire. With an almost obsessive attention to detail, Maclean reconstructs their story using the skill and sensitivity he honed as a novelist.
The Granite Mountain Hotshots—named for a peak that rises above Prescott, Arizona—rose in just a few years from a “homegrown band of wildland firefighters” to an elite and tight-knit team. Fernanda Santos writes that first-year recruits earned just $12 an hour, but “like migrant farm workers chasing harvest time,” they fought fires all across the western U.S. In 2013, nineteen Hotshots perished in a fire just an hour from home. “The Fire Line” builds on Santos’ reporting for the New York Times and grapples with the challenges of researching and narrating the aftermath of tragedy. It’s a strong first book.
Like Santos, Kyle Dickman—who was once a member of a hotshot crew—used extensive interviews to reconstruct the deadly Yarnell Hill Fire. Dickman’s account in Outside magazine, later expanded into a book called On the Burning Edge, weaves personal stories into a vivid and painful narrative of the day of the fire. He brings the perspective of an insider to a disaster that, for outsiders, must have seemed almost unimaginable.
In A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit describes “one of history’s biggest infernos before aerial warfare.” But she’s not especially interested in why San Francisco burned after the massive earthquake of 1906. Instead, she focuses on communities that rose from the ashes, like the outdoor cafeteria that for weeks sustained San Franciscans displaced by disaster. Solnit lingers in places of suffering, like New Orleans after the hurricane and New York City after the 9/11 attacks—but she chronicles a kind of resilience that she calls “redemption amid disruption.” “Few speak of paradise now, except as something remote enough to be impossible,” she writes. “But what if paradise flashed up among us from time to time—at the worst of times?”