Returning Home to a Valley Filled With Flames

Returning Home to a Valley Filled With Flames

Heather Kingdon fights back the flames of the Dixie fire as the enormous blaze reaches her family's home in Genesee, Calif., on Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021. (Christian Monterrosa/The New York Times)
Heather Kingdon fights back the flames of the Dixie fire as the enormous blaze reaches her family’s home in Genesee, Calif., on Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021. (Christian Monterrosa/The New York Times)


TAYLORSVILLE, Calif. — Summers in the tiny towns of Indian Valley did not used to bring megafires. The hottest weeks of the year were for checking cattle, searching for newborn calves, herding the mamas and babies across the fields on horseback. They were for swimming in the creeks of the Feather River amid the cottonwood trees. They were for counting down the days until the Fourth of July rodeo and the Plumas County Fair.

But this summer, the rodeo campgrounds have been covered with the tents of National Guard troops, and the fairgrounds have become the base camp for hundreds of firefighters.

For those residents who have stayed as the Dixie fire has swept across the mountain forests of Northern California for six weeks, hoping to protect their homes and herds and way of life, it is hard to avoid a sense of despair.

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“They just want to let us burn,” said Butch Forcino, repeating a common refrain heard among the valley’s weary residents, who have watched fire crews appear and disappear. He lost his home in Indian Falls to the fire and, like many of those displaced, has been living in a trailer in a friend’s field.

Many of the people who are still hanging on I have known since childhood. This valley has been my family’s home since about 1950, when my grandparents settled near the tiny enclave of Genesee, a former stagecoach stop about five miles from Taylorsville. My grandfather built a racehorse ranch that doubled as a summer camp for children from Hollywood. My mother moved away but returned with me after her divorce, when I was 4.

My aunt, uncle and cousins are now among the dozen or so ranchers who call the valley home. Most have stayed despite evacuation orders, tending to their hundreds of head of cattle even as the largest wildfire burning in the United States bears down.

Some officials have tried to encourage them to leave, saying they put themselves and firefighting crews at risk. But at a time when about 100 large blazes are burning across the West, stretching federal and state resources to the limit, they fear that if they do not protect their homes, no one will.

“It’s so daunting when you look at that huge, monster fire,” my aunt, Heather Kingdon, 70, told me when I visited Indian Valley last week to report on the blaze. “But people don’t understand. This is our livelihood.”

The Dixie fire wiped out the valley’s largest town, Greenville — whose main street dated back to the California gold rush — on Aug. 4 after flames jumped a containment line and flew down from the mountainside. Homes in other, smaller communities succumbed in the following weeks.

Now Taylorsville is the largest town left standing here, about 150 miles north of Sacramento, the state’s capital. Its few hundred residents have been winnowed down to a few dozen, as the fire has reduced nearby forests to blackened trunks, and authorities have 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 peer at a map showing the fire’s progress, as emergency alerts bleated from their phones, signaling the latest evacuation orders.

Wildfires flared up from time to time during my childhood here, but they were nothing like the enormous Dixie fire, now the second-largest on record in California. The summer skies were reliably clear back then, and we could lie on cots under the Ponderosa pines and watch as the night sky — now as blank as the light-polluted expanse above New York City — filled with stars.

My grandfather’s summer camp, the Walking G Ranch, closed years ago, but the lilac bushes I remember smelling after evening chores are still there, though parched. So are the mossy ponds that fill the air with the scent of watercress 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 the drought, which meant they could not harvest their own hay and had to buy bales to feed the cattle all winter. Then there was a plague of grasshoppers, which swarmed so thick they covered the cows.

Like many in the valley, my relatives have packed their most important belongings into horse trailers, then parked the trailers in the middle of irrigated fields — where they too plan to go, they told me, as a last resort.

To protect their homes, Indian Valley’s residents have cleared brush and chopped down beloved trees as fire breaks. They have repurposed irrigation equipment to beat back the flames and rigged pumps to draft water from ponds. They have watched fire engines arrive and depart, moving in and out of the valley as the blaze advances or retreats.

Even before the recent threat, the valley had seen its population decline sharply over the last several decades, as its mines and lumber mills shut down. Many of those who remain are older, some from families going back generations.

Monroe White, a veteran and a onetime gold miner and logger, is 85. He would only leave, he said while sitting on the porch of the Taylorsville store, “when I can read by the firelight and see it come over that hill.”

Last week, flames shot up over the ridges near Genesee and my family’s old ranch. Police officers patrolled through the night, blasting sirens and commanding, “Please evacuate the area!” My aunt texted her son, asking — as she finished packing — if he wanted a framed print hanging in his childhood bedroom.

People in Taylorsville stalked back and forth to the firehouse, eager for updates. By the next day, the familiar yellow fire engines began to reappear, speeding in from another front on the enormous blaze. Then came the bulldozers and helicopters.

As crews spread out over the forest, digging trenches, the blaze reached the Walking G. My family rushed the animals — the horses and sheep, the chickens and dogs — into stalls and pens in the barn it planned to defend alongside a volunteer firefighter.

As ash rained from the sky, they shot down embers with fire hoses. Then the engines came, too, spilling dozens of firefighters from all over the state.

Finally, the fire moved on, racing over a hillock and down into the valley, where it jumped a creek and started burning in another forest. But the flames have returned in the days since. My relatives remain as planned, beating them back, as water-dumping helicopters thump through the once tranquil air.

In the ridges all around, the Dixie fire continues to burn.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

Author: John Hanno

Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. Bogan High School. Worked in Alaska after the earthquake. Joined U.S. Army at 17. Sergeant, B Battery, 3rd Battalion, 84th Artillery, 7th Army. Member of 12 different unions, including 4 different locals of the I.B.E.W. Worked for fortune 50, 100 and 200 companies as an industrial electrician, electrical/electronic technician.

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