‘Ashes, twisted metal’: California residents reeling amid wildfires

San francisco California – Travis Mitchell has lived in Greenville, California, since he was five years old.

The 34-year-old man returned home a week ago to find her still standing, though she smelled smoke, the food in her refrigerator had rotted and one of her goats had been eaten by wolves.

A month earlier, Mitchell had evacuated just before the flames engulfed the small mining community that he had called home for most of his life.

“The city is practically gone,” Mitchell said of Greenville, which had about 1,000 residents before the Dixie fire burned it to the ground. “At the end of my path, all my neighbors are gone.”

He said he was “lucky” that the wind changed and his house was saved. Some buildings, including two stores and part of the high school, survived, but authorities said about three-quarters of the structures in Greenville caught fire.

The Dixie Fire, which is now 75 percent contained, has destroyed 1,300 structures and charred more than 400,000 hectares (one million acres) throughout Northern California, making it the second-largest wildfire in state history. .

“It looks like a big cemetery,” Mitchell said. “There is nothing to look at other than the chimneys and the metal.”

Homes and cars destroyed by the Dixie fire in downtown Greenville on August 5 [File: Noah Berger/AP Photo]

Extended wildfire season

Decades of mismanagement have allowed the forests of the west coast of the United States to become dense. Climate change is increasing the likelihood of droughts that dry up that fuel, and the region is currently experiencing a 20-year “mega drought”.

Together, these conditions have made catastrophic “mega fires” more likely to erupt in California.

Fifteen active wildfires have forced more than 4,000 people to evacuate across the state, which has seen more than 900,000 hectares (2.25 million acres) burn so far this year, a total that was almost unimaginable decades ago. But the fire season is far from over, and experts say it could go on longer than usual through December this year.

US President Joe Biden landed in California this week amid wildfires, promising a series of measures to combat the problem and linking the record fires to climate change. “We cannot ignore the reality that these wildfires are being supercharged by climate change,” Biden said during a news conference in Sacramento on Monday.

Biden said he examined damage from the Caldor fire in the Sierra Nevada mountains, which has burned more than 200,000 acres (80,000 hectares) and 1,000 structures to date, and was 68 percent contained as of Tuesday.

“Homes, precious souvenirs destroyed, degraded air quality, the local economy came to a halt and nearly 200 people in the area were forced to live in shelters,” he said of the toll the wildfire has taken.

President Joe Biden talks about the recent wildfires, at the Sacramento Mather Airport, Monday [Evan Vucci/AP Photo]

‘Ashes and twisted metal’

Back in Greenville, where a mandatory evacuation order was lifted on September 3, returning residents are assessing what they lost. “It’s ash and twisted metal,” Ken Donnell, owner of Donnell’s Music Land on Main Street, said of the community.

Donnell builds and repairs string instruments, inheriting tools from his grandfather. He lost his business and his home to the fire. With decent insurance, he had a softer landing than other residents and found an apartment nearby, but said many people were underinsured or uninsured and lived in tents.

The question of whether to rebuild is up in the air. “Before, we barely hung by our fingernails,” Donnell told Al Jazeera in a telephone interview. “At 68, do I have the drive to do that?”

For his part, Mitchell said he was debating whether to move out of Greenville entirely. But you have three years left to pay for your house and that’s one reason to stay, for now.

A two-hour drive from Greenville is the city of Paradise that was destroyed by the 2018 Camp Fire. Paradise was a larger and richer city than Greenville, but three years later, Paradise has still not recovered, Mitchell said.

“They say they are going to rebuild,” he said of Greenville. “They will build a service station and some owners will rebuild it, but I don’t know. There is not much money here. “

‘Code Red’

On Monday, Biden said he would work closely with California Governor Gavin Newsom to ensure the state has “all the resources” it needs. It has approved disaster declarations for the Caldor and Dixie fires, allowing federal funds to flow to California.

Biden also said the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) approved 33 fire assistance grants to help western states pay for the cost of fighting the fires, adding that it is working to address the shortage of fire hoses. caused by problems in the supply chain during the coronavirus pandemic.

“These fires are flashing code red for our nation, gaining frequency and ferocity, and we know what we have to do,” Biden said. “It starts with our firefighters, who risk their lives in difficult and dangerous conditions.”

In June, Biden raised federal firefighter wages from $ 13 to $ 15 an hour. In addition, Canada and Australia have sent firefighters and planes to help, and 250 US soldiers are on the ground fighting the Dixie fire alongside firefighters, Biden said.

The president’s plan includes using technology to detect fires more quickly in the future, and his infrastructure bill, which has yet to be passed, includes funds for wildfire preparedness. Biden’s budget also increased funding for the treatment of hazardous fuels – mechanical logging and prescribed burning of overgrown forests.

Prescribed burns

Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a fire advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension and director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, is optimistic that people can restore balance to wildfires with nature.

Quinn-Davidson trains people to use prescribed burns, also known as “good fire,” to prevent destructive wildfires. Historically, indigenous peoples intentionally started small fires to clear dense forests, but the United States made this practice illegal. Recently, the Native American and Quinn-Davidson tribes are bringing the concept back, but said the practice needs to be greatly expanded.

“In Sierra Nevada, we are doing less than 20 percent of what needs to happen each year,” he said. “What we are doing is a drop in the bucket. We need to think a lot more about how to restore these landscapes and build resilience. “

A considerable challenge has been insurance, he explained, since even people with extensive training cannot get prescription burn insurance. When a fire gets out of control and emergency services are called, they are billed tens of thousands of dollars.

But that insurance scheme is about to change. This month, the state legislature approved $ 20 million to cover emergency response costs for prescribed burns, and Newsom is expected to sign Senate Bill 332, which recognizes the role of tribes in managing the forests and changes the liability standard so that prescribed burners become law. don’t take so much risk.

When asked about the federal government’s approach to wildfires, Quinn-Davidson said it’s important for the administration to recognize that both forest management and climate change play a role. “For someone like Biden, he absolutely needs to be working on the climate piece, because that’s the scale that it can affect.”


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