“Burning Paradise,” by Terry Hughes. © 2011, Gray Dog Press, Spokane, Wash. Trade paperback, 262 pages. Retail $15.95.

An arsonist is on the loose in Santa Marta. It started with just a few homes being threatened in the steep canyons above the small California coastal town. But this time five people are dead, and Mayor Innes is furious. Time to call in the professionals.

Monte Raleigh is a retired firefighter turned arson investigator, hired by the town of Santa Marta to catch Smoke, the serial arsonist terrorizing the community. He quickly identifies several suspects, including a known torch on parole in town, a man obsessed with fire and a Forest Service employee who is incensed by the encroachment of civilization on her precious forests. The city fire department, Forest Service fire crews and the volunteers that patrol the wooded hillsides surrounding Santa Marta are stepping on each other’s toes and pointing fingers, and everyone can name a prime suspect in another department. It’s up to Monte to sort it all out and catch the killer in action.

High-tech equipment and a bullish investigative style serve Monte well, but also make him a target of the elusive Smoke, and a volunteer firefighter threatens to derail the investigation when Monte gets too personally involved. And all the while, the hills above Santa Marta are going up like a torch. Will Monte catch Smoke before the whole town burns?

Terry Hughes lived in Santa Barbara for several years, where he helped found the Paradise Volunteer Fire Department after the infamous Painted Cave Fire, set by an arsonist in 1990, destroyed more than 500 homes. The first incident in the book is based on actual transcripts of Painted Cave Incident radio transmissions.

Hughes’ strongest work in this book is his descriptions of wildland firefighting and the devastation and danger involved in battling these difficult blazes. His first-hand knowledge of the inner workings of volunteer fire departments really shines through. I found the scenes between Monte Raleigh and the book’s love interest to be a little awkward, however, and readers should be prepared for some explicit subject matter.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the inner workings of wildland fire crews; Hughes really knows his stuff.

Renee Struthers-Hogge is the editorial assistant for the East Oregonian. While she prefers to focus on authors, publishers and subject matter relevant to the Pacific Northwest, she enjoys a wide variety of genres and welcomes suggestions for new review material.

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