Here’s What Put Thousands of Californians in the Path of a Blaze

AP Photo/Noah Berger

If titles are the true first line of any story, then Mark Arax‘s new California Sunday piece starts with scorched earth: “Gone.” What first strikes as dramatic is a simple statement of fact. Four months after the Paradise fire extinguished, when Arax visited to start reporting what turned into an 11,000-word story, the communities that once filled the hills around Paradise, California were no longer there. California’s deadliest fire destroyed 19,000 structures, ended 85 lives, and left PG&E to pay $1 billion in damages. So many people lost the deeply personal, irreplaceable items that compose our identities and sense of family history, including one of Arax’s guides, a local named Joan Degischer:

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.’ ”

With the reportorial skill and knack for narrative that Arax is known for, and the deep knowledge of a native, he looks beyond the tragic panorama of Paradise lost to identify the forces that put thousands of people at risk, and he finds a constellation of factors that other journalists have so far failed to connect: the history of fire suppression and forest mismanagement in the Sierra foothills; political corruption; governmental negligence and rampant urban growth; a flawed relationship with the land beneath our feet; and PG&E’s corrupt “culture of arrogance.” The clues to how this happened lay in past tragedy:

“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.

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