The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A wildfire wiped out their Christmas tree farm and livelihood. Now they wonder what to do next.

Joe McNally assesses the charred trees at his Christmas tree farm in Paradise, Calif. McNally and his wife, Anne Benoit, lost their home and almost 10,000 trees in November’s Camp Fire. (Mason Trinca/For The Washington Post)

PARADISE, Calif. — Joe McNally and Anne Benoit fled their home here through a gantlet of flames, speeding away with one dog, three cats and a black box labeled “EVAC.”

Left behind were McNally’s wallet, Benoit’s wedding ring and one of the last Christmas tree farms in Butte County.

Ten thousand trees.

Ten thousand living rooms.

Ten thousand Christmas mornings.

All gone in the inferno.

The Camp Fire destroyed this town and killed at least 86 people last month, one of the worst wildfires in U.S. history. Many of the things it stole will not be replaced, including a local landmark, Mountain View Christmas Tree Farm.

McNally, 71, and Benoit, 70, said they are too old to replant and start over, and so their scorched-earth farm joins hundreds of others that have closed in recent years, most of which were felled by economic forces, retiring proprietors and America’s affinity for fake trees.

This wasn’t the first time wildfires wiped out a tree farmer, either. Three Northern California Christmas tree farms were completely or partially destroyed within the past 14 months — and the blazes are expected to become more common and severe because of climate change.

“It takes 10 years to grow a new tree,” McNally said, sitting on their bed in a small 24-foot trailer, a makeshift home that is a huge change from the sprawling farm they lived on for four decades.

“We don’t have that much time left,” Benoit said, sitting beside him.

There are 150,000 fewer farms in the United States now compared with 20 years ago. Each closure has its own story, its own struggles, and — often — its own family.

The fact that it took the Camp Fire and its wrath to finally knock out Mountain View is a testament to the stubborn tenacity of its owners. They persisted despite a freak accident that broke McNally’s spine, dangerous mountain lion encounters and hardships that tested their marriage.

Where they go from here, and what happens to Paradise, is as uncertain as the Christmas tree industry they leave behind.

A long wait with little profits

In 1975, McNally bought 40 acres of mostly undeveloped canyon land alongside a branch of the Feather River. He was 28, a bachelor and a firefighter, looking for something bigger.

At first he toyed with raising llamas there, but that wouldn’t work because his shift as a fireman kept him away for long periods of time. Perhaps he’d start a kiwi farm, he thought, but that was ruled out because the elevation was too high.

The hardscrabble landscape and clay earth seemed to be perfect for only one thing — Christmas trees.

“I thought after one year I’d be taking a wheelbarrow full of money to the bank,” he said, laughing at his naivete.

In 1980, he planted hundreds of young trees and married Benoit the following year. She taught disadvantaged children at a local school.

Neither had much business experience, but they both loved Christmas and nature. Benoit had childhood memories of leaving an undecorated tree out for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, and then waking up to see it lit up and decorated the following morning. It was magical.

“The tree was a much bigger deal than what you got,” she said.

Almost immediately their “choose-and-cut” farm was a destination for hundreds of families in Paradise and places as far away as Sacramento and San Francisco.

Each year, the day after Thanksgiving, cars would line up on Mountain View Drive as people eagerly anticipated hunting for their perfect tree. McNally had to hire staff to direct traffic. He would give each family a saw, and then send them off lumbering through his hills, looking for a Douglas fir or Scotch pine to tie on their roof.

Mountain View was one of the area’s most popular holiday destinations, but McNally and Benoit barely broke even. They charged around $20 for a tree in their early years, thinking that keeping prices low would draw people back year after year.

“We took all of our field trips up there,” said Jan Reale, a Paradise resident who taught at the local elementary school for more than 30 years. “The smell was wonderful. For some of the children who didn’t have a clue and only had artificial trees at home, it was something else to see a real tree.”

Americans purchased roughly 20 million natural Christmas trees this year, a 500-year-old Christian tradition that binds generations of families and is meant to be a symbol of the birth of Jesus Christ.

Many tree farmers stumbled into the business, caught up in the nostalgia of their childhoods and convinced their products would never fall out of fashion.

McNally and Benoit sold close to 1,200 trees each season. These sales were concentrated in the three or four weekends that led up to Christmas.

Because trees took 10 years to grow, they could only sell 10 percent of their inventory each year. It’s this dynamic that has led many tree farmers to exit, frustrated at how much care goes into every tree while profits remain elusive.

“It takes a while, and you never quite end up with enough money,” said Sam Minturn, executive director of the California Christmas Tree Association.

McNally and Benoit weren’t as concerned about turning a profit. Both had income from their other jobs and then eventually their pensions. McNally joined the board of the National Christmas Tree Association and tried to help the industry adapt to changing demographics and consumer habits, such as the artificial tree binge that put many farmers out of business.

Membership in the National Christmas Tree Association plummeted from 2,000 several decades ago to just 400 now.

In Oregon, the number of licensed Christmas tree farms fell from 614 in 2012 to 382 this year, according to state records. Licensed farms in Wisconsin fell during that period from 423 to 366.

And that was after the U.S. Agriculture Department reported a 33 percent drop in U.S. production of Christmas trees, from 30 million in 1977 to 20 million earlier this decade.

The shortage of trees in recent years has driven up prices for consumers, but few new farms opened to expand the market. Profit margins remain slim, particularly at smaller farms, and forecasting future demand is nearly impossible given how long it takes to grow an 8-foot tree.

'Time to go, now!'

The morning of the fire that changed their lives forever, Benoit walked outside their house and noticed the sky was thicker.

“The color of the sky wasn’t right,” she said. “There was a cast to it.”

She went on Facebook and saw reports of a wildfire across their canyon, moving in their direction.

Spot fires quickly broke out on the property as heavy winds pushed burning embers onto their farm. Then, Benoit and McNally, clutching garden hoses, tried futilely to stop the fires from multiplying.

McNally realized the fast-moving wildfire was about to jump the Feather River and come storming up their hill. By then it would be too late.

McNally dropped his garden hose and shouted to Benoit, “Time to go, now!”

She jumped in her white Honda with three cats and their dog, Marvel, and sped away. McNally hopped in his truck, with Christmas Tree farm stickers on each door, and rushed to wake up a friend before that house was also engulfed.

They lost almost everything. Benoit’s foresight to pack an evacuation box and purchase a hefty insurance policy less than two months before the fire proved fortuitous, but they were temporarily homeless. They bought the small trailer for $10,000 and live in nearby Chico, unsure of whether they would ever live in the area again.

They returned three weeks later to inspect the damage. Everything was destroyed. The home was a pile of rubble and ash.

Some of the trees were incinerated. Others had lost all their needles and looked like skeletons. And then there was another batch of big, bushy trees that had held onto their shape but had taken on a deep sandy color. Lifeless.

From forest to 'moonscape'

The Camp Fire, in its destruction and death toll, was nearly unprecedented. Climate change threatens to make extreme blazes more common.

As human activity continues to heat the planet, the western United States is getting hotter and dryer, creating tinderbox conditions that are a spark away from an inferno. And as residents and tree farmers rebuild and replant, they face an uncertain future — and questions of whether their businesses can remain viable on a warming planet.

This could expedite difficult decisions that farmers have faced for decades about whether to rebuild after disaster. Floods and freezes. Infestations and droughts. Recovery for Christmas tree farmers can be much more challenging because of how long it takes to recover. One disaster wipes out harvest for a decade, and then owners must decide if they want to start over.

Eighteen years ago, across the canyon, another Christmas tree farm burned to the ground.

Steve and Karen Jo Mueller had just planted a few years before, and they were looking forward to their first harvest. But a wildfire wiped out all their trees at their farm, near Oroville. They were in their 40s and determined. They replanted and began again.

In their first year, they sold just 20 trees, but they built a website and developed a customer base and became a popular holiday tradition. They sold 500 trees most seasons, enough to fund family vacations in the summer. They had plans to expand.

The morning of Nov. 8, when McNally and Benoit futilely tried to save their home with garden hoses, the Muellers were headed in to work as substitute teachers when they saw the smoke and fire. They knew. It was happening again.

The farm was gone. Ten thousand trees, all destroyed. Mueller described the property now as looking like a “moonscape.”

They aren’t sure if they will replant, but they know they won’t be there for the next harvest. They are considering selling the farm in the spring.

“We’re going to really miss it a lot,” he said. “It’s the type of business that takes a long time to get established. To start from scratch is really hard.”

Bud Pochini, a welder in Calistoga, started a small Christmas tree farm in 2001 as a way to primarily provide trees for himself and his relatives. He soon became so obsessed with the business that he expanded to almost 6,000 trees, becoming one of the larger choose-and-cut farms in the state.

Last October, though, a wildfire ripped through Calistoga and torched half of his trees.

Pochini survived but was distraught. He lost $250,000 in welding equipment and Christmas ornaments, not to mention all the dead pines.

Some friends convinced him to open that season anyway, import trees from wholesalers and sell what he could. People set up a tent. Friends showed up. Dozens of people started climbing his hills, saws in hand.

“People started coming down with trees that were burned on one side, or had no needles,” Pochini said, catching his breath as he recalled the memory. “I said, ‘You can’t buy that. It’s a fire hazard.’ They said, ‘Nope, we’re not going to put lights on it. We are going to decorate it.’ They wanted to think how blessed they were.”

'It's either me or the farm'

In 2008, a wildfire in Butte County spooked many local residents. Benoit put together a black EVAC box with their bank records, tax returns and other forms they’d need if they had to flee.

McNally worked to try to fireproof the tree farm. He’d go out in his Ferrari tractor to cut the grass short as a way to prevent a ground fire from blow-torching through this farm. He was aging, and could have let someone younger do this work, but he insisted on doing it himself.

“One of my faults, and it’s a bad fault as a firefighter, is not knowing when to fall back,” he said. “I didn’t have the personality to have a planned retreat.”

So in 2014, McNally was steering the tractor down a steep hill when the brakes gave out. The tractor picked up speed before slamming into a tree. McNally was launched 30 feet down, felt his body slam the ground and then blacked out.

The impact broke the 12th thoracic vertebra in his spine. Doctors put 22 inches of titanium in his back, and he was told to slow down. Another accident and he could be paralyzed. He spent that Christmas season inside the house, clutching a radio, listening to all the people outside buying his trees.

He tried to climb back on the tractors, but Benoit ratted him out to his doctor. His 6-foot frame contracted as he walked with a severe stoop. He was in his late 60s, running a Christmas tree farm on the side of a dangerous canyon. And now Benoit, 5-foot-1 and 105 pounds, was forced to pick up much of the hard labor.

She was the teacher, artist and marketing director, but she tried to be the Christmas tree farmer. She hauled 80-pound trees and stood on slippery ladders while gripping a pipe wrench in each hand, struggling to loosen irrigation valves.

It was too much. After one frustrating episode, she gave McNally an ultimatum.

“It’s either me or the farm,” she said.

He quickly agreed to sell.

In 2016, they listed the Christmas tree farm, hoping to get $300,000. They received several inquiries and decided to sell it the following year to someone who wanted to plant grapes. The morning after they signed a preliminary batch of paperwork, Benoit came down the stairs and told McNally she had second thoughts. Cancel the contract, she said. She wanted to keep the trees.

But they agreed to make more changes. Last year was their final formal Christmas tree sale, with the hot chocolate and marshmallows and cars snaked up Mountain View Drive. They had finally raised their prices, a bit, but trees still sold for less than $50.

This year they had planned to cut down at least 500 trees for wholesalers and then let people come and cut down their own, mailing a check to the farm.

As they transitioned to this new lifestyle, they paid for an expansive renovation of the farmhouse. They put in a wheelchair ramp and nonslip bathroom floors. McNally also made arrangements so that, one day, instead of going to a hospice he could spend his final days there, among the Christmas trees.

And then Benoit did something else despite McNally’s resistance. She purchased a top-notch insurance policy. Just in case.

Six weeks later, the fire swept through.

'Paradise was good to me'

When they were allowed to return, the farm was still there. The trucks were still there. Their house was still there. But it was all destroyed. Charred or crumbled.

“It looks like a mess, a lot of work,” McNally said, standing beside a burned out tractor.

Sitting on a rock nearby, Benoit looked up at the clear sky and remarked how in other years, the farm would have been crawling with people that day, just before Christmas.

“This would have been just a very nice fabulous time for a lot of families, and they don’t have an alternative,” she said.

A friend surprised them with two Christmas stockings for their trailer, and another gave McNally a 4-foot Christmas tree. He set it up outside with a little string of lights. There’s no room where they sleep.

Benoit wants to buy a duplex, maybe in Reno, Nev., and leave Paradise. The infrastructure of the town is gone. Their friends are gone. Even some town officials believe it could be two years before there is any sense of normalcy.

McNally wants to be part of the rebuilding and is trying to get local officials to let him set up trailers so workers can stay on his land. It will take special permits but it’s a way to use the land for something good, he said, even if the Christmas trees are all gone.

“Paradise was good to me,” he said. “I think I should be good to it.”

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