The town of Paradise, California, remains preserved on Google’s Street View the way it was, in April, before it burned to the ground during the Camp Fire in early November. There’s the McDonald’s on Clark Street, which, in its ruin, became a popular before-and-after image. The Golden Nugget Museum of mining and blacksmith arts across from Paradise Memorial Park, currently an ashen plot, remains on its business page a tiny Old Western–style structure that opens every day at noon. There’s the Black Bear Diner with its “Welcome to Bearadise” sign and the historic Honey Run Bridge, even though both went up in flames. The Fosters Freeze neon “Open” sign is on.
The 153,336-acre fire’s origin is unconfirmed, though investigative teams have fixed their eyes on failing electrical equipment. It began in the early hours of November 8 and consumed acreage at an alarming rate, helped by record dry-hot winds sucking moisture out of the ground: “negative rain.” Early risers sped through the streets in trucks like 21st century frontiersmen, with palms pressed heavy against their car horns, yelling out their windows for their neighbors to wake up and evacuate.
My obsession with refreshing the situation in Paradise was akin to homesickness; my only way to participate or experience its intensity was limited to haptics
The week Paradise descended into hell, my phone buzzed with evacuation notices, because my primary address is still in California, even though I live across the country on the east coast. It rained all week in New York City while wildfires raged in my home state, decimating the flat plots of Paradise’s alpine grid, killing 85 people and destroying 14,000 homes and 5,000 other structures. Three people are still missing. Between clicking on videos of fathers soothing their young daughters while driving through walls of fire, or scrolling past jpegs of blackened car skeletons captured in the eerie monochrome of ash, I heard and saw the wreckage on the news. I saw fire devils spin across the screen followed by audio clips of residents who were convinced they were going to die and who expressed genuine surprise that they survived. “Here was our living room, and our kitchen was over there,” says a man being interviewed for AP News, pointing to a heap of metal rebar and then to a stone wall overlaid with charred stuff. “It’s hard to look around and see what’s left.” The camera follows the man as he stumbles from object to object, wiping his hands on his pants as he touches what’s left of his house. In the next shot, a woman sorts through broken blue-and-white china plates, collecting them in a delicate stack. “I was always afraid to use them because I didn’t want to break them,” she says, shrugging. She never once looks into the camera — you can tell she’s trying not to cry. With footage from drones, phones, and news cameras, media coverage showed two apocalyptic Paradises on screen: a thunderous inferno and after, a dust-laden no man’s land with moon-surface silence.
Warm and safe in my Brooklyn apartment, protected by brick rather than stucco and with the radiator humming, far from the drifting ash clouds and fire-scorched sunsets I’d come to know after a lifetime in San Diego, then Los Angeles, I felt a folksy voyeurism tinged with faint nostalgia for the disaster of fire season. This instinct seemed as virtually distant and surreal as toggling through images of old Paradise on Street View. My obsession with refreshing the situation in Paradise was akin to homesickness; my only way to participate or experience its intensity was limited to haptics. I experienced a sudden wave of topophilia — a strong sense of attachment to a place, a notion that its terrain was connected to my life — for both a time and a community that no longer exists, even in the unlikely case that it returns, in the next decade, in another form.
Disaster doesn’t extinguish a place even if it’s wiped from the map, yet we rush to romanticize its “disappearance” and landmark it as such. Google Maps have deepened this belief that a map is key to how we experience place by giving us an “interactive” mode of exploring a location through Street View, and archiving panoramic images in its database, making years’ worth of “real time” available to a user. What is off screen in this model is offline and may as well not exist — those unmarked places come to resemble, as time passes, lost cities.
California is home to a variety of ghost towns. East of the Sierra Nevadas, Bodie, which like many other former settlements is now a historic park, was a gold-mining town whose population surged during the Rush and dwindled after Prohibition. Amboy, in San Bernardino county, fell into disrepair after the construction of the interstate rendered it obsolete as a roadside attraction. Artifice is an integral part of living in California, whose residents make peace with precarious terrain and aestheticize abandonment (pastiched decay) or with anticipatory nostalgia (for eventual ruin). We forget, quickly, once the weather returns to its temperate 70 degrees: Places like the bluffs of Malibu aren’t justifiable economically, living there is both cost-prohibitive and dangerous. An entire neighborhood near San Pedro once sank into the Pacific ocean in 1929, and its remnants are now a cult tourist attraction.
Paradise is not a post-industry ghost town but one abandoned and leveled by a wickedly fast wildfire exacerbated by climate change. So when the past happens overnight, how will technology decide to reflect the new (or newest) reality? How quickly can you update a disaster site? Unlike a typical ghost town, its infrastructure isn’t physically preserved; instead, its neighborhoods and businesses are time-capsuled online more thoroughly and accessibly than any historically devastated location in the state. In addition to Street View image captures from 2009 up to the spring before the fire, personal photographs are uploaded online and linked to specific businesses. Homes are still for sale on Zillow and Redfin; business hours are active. The digital imprint hasn’t caught up with the rapid devastation. Archeologists dig through physical ghost towns to learn about the people who lived there, but now anyone can excavate traces left by the people who lived and traveled through Paradise when it was standing. The flash-bang of Paradise’s ruin pulled so much national attention and so fast that it left a gaping rift between its present and past. It created an unprecedented demand for “maps” to memorialize a place marred by tragedy, left online as though it were still there, to even broaden the demands of “mapping” itself.
A panoramic photographer who has worked for Google Maps as a contractor taught me a trick over email: Clicking on the blue dots in Street View mode will indicate who took the photo and submitted it independently. I am able to see individual photos of places that are personally significant to strangers, so much so that they uploaded them to Paradise’s map view, deeming them important enough for the public.
There are less than 20 blue dots in Paradise. Each one represents an image, and each image represents a literal snapshot of a person’s life imposed onto the digital landscape. One picture is of a backyard contributed by Phillip, a panoramic photographer who lived and posted from Paradise, as well as Thailand, and Twentynine Palms, California, and Hayden Valley, Wyoming, and many others labeled “Unknown Place” but are geo-tagged. Another blue dot is a set of photographs of a double-wide trailer in Quail Trail Village Mobile Home Park, contributed by a photographer named Dennis Hanko. Hanko died in the Paradise fire, and his blue dots effectively memorialized both his trailer park and unexpectedly, his life there, including his home decorations and a garden that Street View hadn’t reached.
There are 20 “blue dots” in Paradise. Each one represents an image, and each image represents a literal snapshot of a person’s life imposed onto the digital landscape
As Paradise recovers, new photo-sphere images are slowly being uploaded to Google Maps by city employees and homeowners who until recently were the only people allowed back into the disaster site. A December 2018 image, which once showed the now famous You Are Ascending Into Paradise sign, now shows bouquets of carnations lining what’s left of the stone base, with a leaning particle board which reads, Looters Beware We Have Guns and a Backhoe Keep Out.
More than 95 percent of the structures in Paradise are gone. The photographic proof of hundreds of damaged or totaled structures that made up the town lies in the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s searchable “Cal Fire” database of field-damage survey photographs. These are all taken by city employees — there’s no attribution or staff page. It has an option to search an address and find its damage status as minor, major, or destroyed. In one image, a trio of Big Gulps rests at the base of a melted garage door, whose metal bones have curled and blackened like the wick of a candle. In another, the red and white stripes of an American flag twist around a charred pole marking a pile of ashes that was once a single-story home. Here’s a heap of corrugated metal slats, a skeleton of an electric air conditioner, and a wet pile of patio furniture. The subject is unsentimental in its framing; it was someone’s job to take these photos. Like ghost towns, Paradise is catalogued by images of absence that teem with “clues,” reinforcing its narrative by retelling its story again and again. This is how the people fled, here is how the buildings burned, and this is what is left.
There are no people in the Cal Fire images the way there are on Google’s Street View, only a suggestion through the photographer’s perspective. Every now and then evidence of life, like the Big Gulps, slips through. Cal Fire’s map is informational, stoic in its matter-of-fact manner of handling melted-down plots, as opposed to Street View and its blue dots, which allow you to follow the life of a Paradise resident click by click: I can find these people through their photographs and piece together some sort of personal trajectory through the disaster of the wildfires.
As a digital ghost town, the outdated Yelp pages for Paradise (as seen online) are the equivalent of boarded-up windows in abandoned storefronts with the lights left on. What makes looking at the former version of Paradise online feel transgressive (voyeuristic or recreational) is the fact that it hasn’t been properly updated to reflect its current status. Roland Barthes explains in Mythologies that images which shock are horrifying because we are electively looking at them from a safe distance, looking outward from “inside our freedom.” Street View, of course, is not an “interior view,” yet the images of fire-damaged and gutted abodes feels wholly invasive — semi-permanent and digital fodder for desk-bound looky-loos, “outside” and “in public” and therefore invaded by our view. A ghost town hangs onto traces of life for a distanced but recreational experience, but images of ruins feel more akin to incidental snapshots; Street View and the Cal Fire images let us look with nose pressed to the screen as private voyeurs.
Climate change will upend the world, but our current ways of peering into and interacting with other topographies is through the lens of digital curiosity
In comparing the Cal Fire map to Street View, I found myself trying to click and drag my cursor across static images. I wanted to see more devastation. Street View affords an oblique sense of space in which users feel entitled to a fluidity of virtual perspective and exploration where personal disaster is available to the public. In Vilém Flusser’s Toward a Philosophy of Photography, the philosopher explains that the average viewer comes to understand images as windows, rather than representations. We as viewers don’t see the images of Paradise or any panoramic images on Street View as what they are — images of what the Google camera car captured in one specific instance on one specific day — but rather, as Flusser says, “ways of looking at the world.” Staring at my screen on the Cal Fire website, I was inside my freedom, clicking through beautiful images of devastation taken by civil servants and posted online for mourning homeowners.
Since our new digitized history is privately owned, our public record is geopolitical. When disaster is characterized as data, an image of a melted home shares the same plane as an image of my face, say, or a shot I took of a dog on the street. All digital photos are encrypted informational data rather than images and mapping the world will be less about what there is to see or experience as a means for empathy than hoarding and controlling information. Climate change will upend the world, but our current ways of peering into and interacting with other topographies is through the lens of digital curiosity.
Street View and the Cal Fire map act as a digital preservation site for immediate and devastating climate change. As one photosphere photographer told me in his email: “To me, a place is a story and can never be more or less than that.” In our collective imaginations or at least on screen, the story of Paradise slips easily into the outline of another California myth of overcoming, a place temporarily abandoned while people rebuild. The fable of Paradise is assembled image by image, where I can avoid the visceral effects of climate change from the comfort of my own home. I can watch the world melt from my living room until my own house is on fire.