Homecoming to a Valley of Flames

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TAYLORSVILLE, California — Summers in the small towns of Indian Valley used to not bring megafires. The hottest weeks of the year were spent checking cattle, searching for newborn calves, and herding mothers and babies in the fields on horseback. They were to swim in the streams of the Feather River among the cotton trees. They wanted to count the days until the Fourth of July rodeo and the Plumas County Fair.

This summer, however, the rodeo campgrounds have been lined with National Guard tents, and the fairgrounds have become the base camp for hundreds of firefighters.

As the Dixie fire swept through northern California’s mountain forests for six weeks, it’s hard to avoid a sense of despair for the residents who stay here hoping to protect their homes, herds, and way of life.

“They want to let us burn,” said Butch Forcino, repeating a common refrain heard among the exhausted inhabitants of the valley who watched the firefighters appear and disappear. He lost his Indian Falls home in a fire and, like many of the displaced, lives in a trailer on a friend’s field.

I’ve known many people who still hang since I was a kid. This valley has been my family’s home since about 1950, when my grandparents settled near the small Genesee area, an old stagecoach stop about five miles from Taylorsville. My grandfather built a racehorse ranch that served as a summer camp for kids from Hollywood. My mom moved but came back with me after she got divorced when I was 4 years old.

My aunt, uncle and cousins ​​are now among a dozen or so farmers who call the valley home. Most remained despite evacuation orders, tending to hundreds of cattle even as the largest wildfire in the United States quelled.

Some officials tried to encourage them to leave, saying they were putting themselves and their firefighters at risk. But at a time when there are about 100 great flames burning across the westBy pushing federal and state resources to the limit, they fear that if they don’t protect their homes, no one will.

“It’s so frightening when you look at this huge, monster fire,” my 70-year-old aunt, Heather Kingdon, said when I visited Indian Valley last week to report the fire. “But people don’t understand. It’s our livelihood.”

The Dixie fire wiped out the valley’s largest town., Greenville – its main street ran all the way to the California gold rush – on August 4, after flames bypassed a containment line and flew down the mountaintop. Houses in other, smaller communities succumbed in the following weeks.

Now Taylorsville is the largest town left here, about 150 miles north of the state’s capital, Sacramento. Several hundred residents fell to several dozen as the fire turned nearby forests into blackened tree trunks and authorities issued mandatory evacuation orders and set up checkpoints on the roads.

On the covered porch of the town’s only store last week, the few remaining residents stopped to look at a map showing the fire’s progress, and reported the latest evacuation orders as emergency alerts came through on their phones.

Wildfires flared up from time to time during my childhood here, but now they were not like the massive Dixie fire. Second largest record in California. The summer skies were reliably clear at the time, and we could lie on bedsteads under the Ponderosa pines and watch the night sky—now as empty as the light-polluted expanse above New York City—be filled with stars.

My grandfather’s summer camp, Walking G Ranch, closed years ago, but the lilac bushes I remember smelling after evening work are still there, albeit withered. So do mossy ponds that fill the air with the scent of cress and mint.

My aunt and uncle’s house stands on a nearby wooded hill. It had already been a bad year, my aunt told me last week. There was a drought which meant they couldn’t harvest their own hay and would have to buy bales to feed the cattle all winter. Then a plague of locusts broke out, covering the cows in a herd so thick.

Like so many others in the valley, my relatives packed their most important belongings into caravans, then parked the caravans in the middle of the irrigated fields – where they also planned to go, they told me, as a last resort.

To protect their homes, Indian Valley residents cleared bushes and cut down beloved trees as the fire broke out. They redesigned irrigation equipment to repel flames and installed pumps to draw water from ponds. They watched the arrival and exit of fire trucks, entering and exiting the valley as the flame advanced or retreated.

Even before the last threat, the valley had seen its population decline sharply over the past few decades as its mines and sawmills closed. Most of the rest are older, some from families that go back generations.

Monroe White, a veteran and once gold miner and logger, is 85 years old. Sitting on the porch of his Taylorsville store, he said he’d be leaving “when I could read it by the firelight and see it coming from that hill.”

Last week, flames rose in the hills near Genesee and my family’s old farm. Police officers patrolled throughout the night, detonating the sirens and shouting, “Please clear the area!” gave the order. My aunt texted her son and – as he finished packing – asking if he’d like a framed print in his childhood bedroom bedroom.

People in Taylorsville rushed back and forth to the fire station, impatient for the updates. The next day, the familiar yellow fire trucks began to reappear, speeding up from another front above the enormous flame. Then came the bulldozers and helicopters.

The flames reached Walking G as crews spread out into the forest, digging ditches. My family rushed to the barns and corrals in the barn where he planned to defend the animals – horses and sheep, chickens and dogs – along with a volunteer firefighter.

As ash fell from the sky, they lowered the embers to the ground with their fire hoses. Then came the engines, and dozens of firefighters poured in from all over the state.

Eventually the fire continued, descending rapidly over a mound into the valley, where it jumped into a stream and began to burn in another forest. But the flames have since returned. My relatives stay as planned, leaving them behind as helicopters pouring water beat the once calm air.

In the surrounding hills, the Dixie fire continues to burn.

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