Alternative Reality: ‘Inferno in Paradise’

Homes leveled by the Camp Fire line Valley Ridge Drive in Paradise, Calif., on Monday, Dec. 3, 2018. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

President Donald Trump has obliterated any notion of off-time for round-the-clock journalists, but it was still a relief to see that the alt-weeklies I read for this installment in my regular reading list were starting off the new year strong. The Chico News & Review, whose work I have previously highlighted here, can be forgiven, however, for publishing an old piece, from 1993, in which a reporter basically imagines the Camp Fire before it occurred.

Other stories were equally ambitious, if newer. Tucson Weekly published a lovely and unexpected ode to Interstate 10, which cuts across the southern portion of the United States, while the Chicago Reader drew attention to the work of an underappreciated free-jazz group with a longtime residency in the Roscoe Village neighborhood.

The East Bay Express — whose entire editorial staff was, sadly, laid off last week — and the Rochester City Newspaper both published probing pieces on police accountability. The Arkansas Times highlighted the work of a now-forgotten muralist named Joe Jones. The Salt Lake City Weekly gave readers a comprehensive history of a secluded neighborhood called Allen Park, or Hobbitville, and the Colorado Springs Independent set its scope on a public land issue in Colorado.

1. “Inferno in Paradise” (Jonathan Franks, August 12, 1993, Chico News & Review)

Twenty-six years before the deadliest wildfire in California history decimated the small town of Paradise, Jonathan Franks of the Chico News & Review filed a disturbingly prescient dispatch from the Paradise Ridge in which he imagined a conflagration of disastrous proportions. The piece, which came out in the summer of 1993, was recently re-published in print and online.

After interviewing a number of local fire officials, Franks came to a jarring conclusion:

These guys have spent half their lives learning everything there is to learn about wildfires—from the conditions that breed them to the military-like strategies used to fight them. Listening carefully to their cautious, technical language, one can’t help but realize they are predicting a disaster almost too horrible to imagine.

Ridge topography, with its steep canyons and narrow plateaus, makes access extremely difficult for fire crews and ground equipment, they say. It also creates natural bottlenecks where fleeing residents could be trapped by walls of flame.

During wildfires, this sort of terrain can create a “chimney effect” where flames go roaring down the canyons and swirling up the ridges at terrible speeds.

Franks’ prescient prediction? “It’s going to happen, and it’s going to be bad.”

2. “Interstate 10: A Personal History” (Tom Zoellner, January 10, 2019, Tucson Weekly)

For Tucson Weekly, Tom Zoellner, the author of Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World, wrote a soulful paean to the barren portion of Interstate 10 between Phoenix and Tucson, by his account an underappreciated stretch of asphalt that he refers to as “this most essential of Arizona’s rural arteries.”

Nobody writes a poem to this section of expressway, completed in the heyday of the optimism of the Kennedy-Johnson New Frontier between 1961-1971. I have lived in both Phoenix and Tucson off and on and have probably traversed this road more than 800 times, looking at the same sunbaked landmarks and thinking the same reliable thoughts: about old friends, old happenings, old mysteries of my life here. How many others mark their I-10 journeys with a mental libretto of musings on the roadside spectacle?

3. “Extraordinary Popular Delusions play free jazz two centuries deep” (Howard Mandel, January 10, 2019, Chicago Reader)

Like Zoellner’s I-10, the Chicago-based free-jazz group Extraordinary Popular Delusions, named after a 19th-century study by a Scottish journalist, is underappreciated. But the band, which has held a weekly residency at the Beat Kitchen in Roscoe Village for nearly the past decade, is given its due by Howard Mandel in this in-depth profile for the Chicago Reader.

Their shows are little heralded and often sparsely attended, but 13 years of continuous collaboration have turned this quartet into a beacon of Chicago’s indigenous avant-garde, with an unpredictable, provocative sound that arises from the commingling of its members’ diverse influences and experiences.

As Longreads contributor Aaron Gilbreath recently lamented in a thoughtful essay, music journalism has become something of an endangered genre — so it’s encouraging that the Reader is committed to robust coverage of the Chicago music scene.

4. “Oakland’s Lost Year of Police Accountability” (Darwin BondGraham, January 9, 2019, East Bay Express)

In 2016, Oakland residents voted to establish an independent commission to oversee the city’s scandal-ridden police department. The commission began operating last year, but so far it has proven ineffectual in holding the department to account, as Darwin BondGraham reveals in his thorough investigation for the East Bay Express. While some observers are hopeful that the commission will pull itself together in the new year, BondGraham writes that there is evidence to suggest that it will only further unravel in 2019.

Already, two of the best-qualified commissioners have resigned, one of them in frustration. In November, the commission suddenly and secretively fired its chief investigator after publicly clashing with him. Commissioners have also quarreled during public meetings with their legal counsel, and their first attorney quit after commissioners argued with her at meetings. The commissioners have also bickered amongst themselves, sometimes over email and text message, sometimes in public. And lacking experience with state open meetings laws, at least one of the commissioners committed a Brown Act violation in the form of unnoticed emails sent to a quorum of other commissioners.

Over the past year, the commission hasn’t made progress on the core work required of it under the city charter. They’ve yet to hold a single hearing in a police disciplinary case or participate in an OPD Executive Force Review Board to examine a shooting or similar critical incident. They’re ill-prepared to draft their evaluation of the police chief. They’ve yet to hold a community meeting.

5. “City Hall prepares to reform Rochester’s police oversight” (Mary Anna Towler and Tim Louis Macaluso, January 8, 2019, Rochester City Newspaper)

In Rochester, city council members are finalizing legislation that would create a police accountability board with the power to discipline police officers. The city’s mayor, Lovely Warren, has also submitted her own legislation, and a team of activists is advocating for the establishment of an independent civilian review board with broad investigatory and disciplinary powers.

The city council will be holding three forums to solicit comments from the public early this year, as Mary Anna Towler and Tim Louis Macaluso point out in their report for Rochester’s City Newspaper, one installment in an ongoing series on police-community relations.

The unveiling of Council’s legislation and the forums will be the start of what will likely be several months of emotional public discussion of a major community issue: how to handle citizen complaints about police officers’ conduct in a way that is fair to both the public and the officers. And how to do that in a way that builds trust rather than eroding it.

Perhaps Rochester can look to Oakland for lessons on what not to do.

6. “A mural to move Little Rock forward” (Leslie Newell Peacock, December 27, 2018, Arkansas Times)

A 1935 mural by the American painter Joe Jones — a triptych of sorts, which depicts, from left to right, sharecroppers, coal miners, and a lynching — probably shouldn’t still exist. But it does, thanks to a series of auspicious events that led to its restoration and installation at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s new downtown facility, as Leslie Newell Peacock details in an uplifting story for the Arkansas Times.

Jones, she writes, “could not have foreseen that the mural, painted on masonite, would survive intact for only five years before being dismantled — along with the college — and become Depression-era building material for a closet in a home in Mena.”

That it would be rediscovered 40 years after that and sold to a university. That 73 years after Jones put the last brush stroke on the painting, the mural, restored, would once again hang in an academic space, not in the dining room of a small left-wing college in a remote mountain town, but in a smashing new university venue on the bustling President Clinton Avenue in downtown Little Rock — where its story of Arkansas’s past sins will be seen by many, inspire conversation and, perhaps, show a way forward to Arkansas’s redemption.

7. “Hunters, hikers and anglers can’t access millions of acres of public land” (Faith Miller, January 9, 2019, Colorado Springs Independent)

A property battle ensues in Colorado Springs, where public land users are butting heads with private landowners who own property that connects with government land, reminiscent of an issue in California in which private properties block access to public beaches.

A recent study by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) and onX sheds new light on how widespread the problem has become. Researchers mapped 13 Western states with technology supplied by onX, a mapping service for hunters, hikers and anglers that identifies which lands are legal to access for recreational purposes. They discovered 9.52 million acres of taxpayer-funded public land—an area larger than New Hampshire and Connecticut combined—that the public cannot legally enter because they’re surrounded by private property.

One interesting wrinkle in the Colorado Springs Independent piece by Faith Miller is that mapping technology has led hikers and other recreationalists to notice what land they are missing out on. Mapping, Miller writes, “leads to an increased sense of injustice, as outdoor enthusiasts realize how much public land remains inaccessible to them, particularly in rural areas.”

8. “Hobbitville’s Last Days” (David Hampshire, January 9, 2019, Salt Lake City Weekly)

David Hampshire, a longtime resident of Salt Lake City’s Allen Park, a secluded community also known as Hobbitville — though there are no hobbits to speak of — was recently evicted from his residence as the fate of the the neighborhood is decided in probate court. While it’s unclear what will happen to Hampshire and his neighbors, in a delightfully reported essay for Salt Lake City Weekly, he educates readers on the odd history of Allen Park, which is named after an eccentric doctor named George A. Allen, a bird lover who acquired the property in 1931.

“From time to time, Dr. Allen would also keep zoo animals on the property,” Hampshire writes—including “an elephant, a chimpanzee and several reindeer. The family also collected an unusual assortment of ‘pets’ including a coyote, a sandhill crane named Sandy and a raccoon that sometimes followed the girls to school.

Times have changed.

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Matthew Kassel is a freelance writer whose work has been published by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Columbia Journalism Review.