Living with Fire in Northern California

Living with Fire in Northern California

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DUNSMUIR, Calif.—It’s hard to hide the magnificent 14,180-foot volcanic mountain that towers over this tiny town in northernmost California, about 45 miles from the fire-ravaged city of Redding. But smoke traveling north from a trio of historic wildfires did just that, shrouding Mount Shasta and surrounding mountains in an eerie grey haze that forced folks indoors to avoid the acrid, unhealthy air. The destructive Carr, Hirz and Delta wildfires have collectively dragged on for 10 weeks, torching nearly 340,000 acres and threatening lives and livelihoods in heavily wooded Shasta, Trinity and Siskiyou counties. Firefighters expect to finally contain the last remnant of these long-lasting fires by the end of this week. 

Despite intensive global media coverage of the Northern California wildfires, it’s hard to capture the visceral feeling of being in a smoke-filled landscape where everyday life is disrupted. The human toll hit home for me recently when I attended a high school reunion here and experienced firsthand the physical and psychological discomfort of being in fire country: irritating smoke in my eyes, throat and lungs; the need to head indoors to reduce exposure; the visual disorientation when normal mountain vistas disappear in a smoky haze; and the nagging anxiety and uncertainty about what comes next. 

Indeed, the unforgiving and unforgettable wave of fires here and throughout California in 2017 and 2018 has left not only an indelible footprint on the land but a long-lasting impact on the collective psyche. There is widespread recognition that more of these unpredictable, human-caused infernos are inevitably part of the state’s future—what Gov. Jerry Brown calls “the new normal” of a changing climate. That means greater health and safety risks for not only for those directly in harm’s way but for larger numbers of people affected by harmful smoke carried long distances from the source. 

“The fog of fire is like being in a different world. I started feeling like a prisoner. It’s taken a really big psychological toll on people here,” says high school classmate Donna Crowe, who grew up here and returned to the area five years ago. “Mount Shasta is a touchstone for us all. Most of the time we couldn’t see it. The smoke rolled in so far that all of the mountains disappeared.” Other wildfires burning in southern Oregon contributed to the smoke hovering over the landscape during the last two months.

 “Economically, it’s the worst disaster I’ve ever been through,” says my friend Louie Dewey, the second-generation owner of the historic Cave Springs Resort in Dunsmuir. This shrinking railroad town of 1,650 on the upper Sacramento River sits in a canyon about eight miles south of Mount Shasta. Tourism and outdoor recreation, from trout fishing to hiking around picturesque lakes, waterfalls and mountains, are the lifeblood for many local businesses. Cave Springs lost about 50 percent of its crucial seasonal rentals due to fire-related cancellations, says Dewey.

Dunsmuir, my home for three years of high school, felt like a ghost town during our visit. My family had our pick of tables at the normally bustling Cornerstone Cafe. Dunsmuir Hardware, an old-fashioned general store dating back to 1894, had a handful of people when we went in. The Ted Fay Fly Shop, a destination fishing store started by a famed angler (and father of a high school friend), was deserted as well. At the Saturday evening class reunion in the Railroad Park Resort just south of Dunsmuir, the soaring spires of the distinctive Castle Crags rock formation were lost in a smoky haze. My classmates and I welcomed being indoors for dinner in an air-conditioned old railroad car to escape the smoke.

This year’s disastrous fire season began when the Carr fire struck the small city of Redding in late July. Driving to Dunsmuir, we pulled off and visited devastated neighborhoods on the west side. Most striking were streets where the wind-driven blaze burned one side to the ground, while the other side was spared, leaving intact houses with technicolor green lawns in sharp contrast to black-and-white ruins. The Carr fire ultimately became the sixth most destructive fire in California history, burning nearly 230,000 acres, destroying some 1,600 structures and killing eight people before complete containment on August 30.

Meanwhile, on August 9, the Hirz fire started just east of the Carr fire, and burned 46,150 acres before being fully contained on September 12. By then, the Delta fire, starting September 5, was underway, sweeping along Interstate 5 north of Redding, causing truckers and other motorists to abandon their vehicles to escape the fast-moving flames. The raging fire closed down a 45-mile stretch of this major north-south highway and put Dunsmuir on evacuation alert. 

“I’ve never experienced fear of fire until now,” says retired school teacher Harriet Alto, a recent widow who’s lived in town for 65 years. She prepared to evacuate with two small packed bags, making plans with a neighbor to drive north to an emergency shelter if evacuation became mandatory. Though the Delta fire came close—14 miles away—Dunsmuir fortunately was spared.

Local residents I spoke to agreed that two major problems—climate change and forest management—contributed to California’s wildfire problem. “I’m concerned there clearly isn’t the political will in this country to deal with climate change. The climate has already changed and denying it isn’t going to fix anything,” says Cave Springs owner Dewey. 

In addition, failure to manage forests by thinning wooded areas and thick undergrowth provided abundant fuel to feed wildfires, noted Dewey. In September, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation allocating $1 billion over five years for statewide fire prevention, including increased management of overgrown forests. 

Right now, there is great relief the Delta fire, which has burned 63,300 acres, is 97 percent contained, with full containment estimated for late Friday (October 5), one month after it started. As the smoke finally receded, Crowe recalled screaming in excitement like a small kid when Mt. Shasta came back into view and stars again shone in the night sky. Current weather in the area is cloudy and cooler, with scattered showers and rain. “I’m thankful the rain started. It feels like it finally might be the end of the long fire season,” Crowe said by phone Monday. But, like many other Californians, she is left with a nagging concern about future fires: “How do you really feel safe again?”



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Jim Staab

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