The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Dixie Fire destroyed this small California town. A week later, its residents remain in limbo.

Unable to go home and struggling to move forward, Greenville evacuees seek shelter and face the loss of their community

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QUINCY, Calif. — When the Dixie Fire struck, a wall of flames marched down the mountains, incinerating small businesses and melting homes into ash. Helicopters circled overhead, dropping flame retardant in a desperate attempt to stop the blaze.

Soon, most of Greenville, Calif., had been reduced to heaps of rubble, mangled metal and soot-covered debris — a centuries-old town essentially wiped off the map. Meanwhile, most of its roughly 1,000 residents had been evacuated, an entire community turned into wildfire refugees.

More than a week later, Greenville residents remain in a state of suspended animation. As the Dixie Fire has exploded into the largest single wildfire in California history — consuming more than 500,000 acres in a wildfire season that’s on track to shatter last year’s records — Greenville residents are forbidden to return home.

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While people from of other parts of the Indian Valley have seen evacuation orders downgraded to warnings, Plumas County Undersheriff Chad Hermann said he expects Greenville to be formally off limits for weeks. Burning rubber and asbestos have made the air hazardous, he said, and spot fires could still be active underground.

Once Greenville is deemed safe, Hermann said, public safety officials plan to escort people back home. But for now, residents are stuck sleeping in tents, on cots in shelters and in relatives’ homes, forced to learn the status of their houses from photos taken by friends and emergency officials.

“Greenville itself, it’s going to be an extended period of time due to the destruction that was there,” Hermann said. “The town’s devastated.”

Among those waiting to go back is Stephanie Fairbanks, 33. Her family has lived in the tightknit Sierra Nevada community for four generations. Last week, she and numerous close relatives, including her mom and grandma, were all ordered out, forced to scatter to more distant relations in far-flung towns.

“It’s something totally different when you can’t go stay with mom, you can’t go stay with grandma,” said Fairbanks. “That hits hard.”

Some Greenville residents have bucked the prohibition on returning, sneaking in via remote back roads. Thousands of miles of U.S. Forest Service roads pass through the town, Hermann said, making it impossible to secure every entrance. He said officials ask families to leave when they’re spotted.

Residents described Greenville as a frozen-in-time sort of Mayberry, where people wave to each other out car windows and help is easy to find. The town was home to the Maidu tribe of Native Americans before European settlers arrived amid the Gold Rush in the 1850s to work in mining, agriculture, ranching and timber. Only a few buildings in Greenville’s downtown were less than 50 years old.

In this scenic mountain region, wildfires are a fact of life. Greenville has been scorched by several fires over the centuries, including one in 1881 that destroyed many of the businesses on Main Street and forced them to rebuild. Due to climate change, the average temperature in Plumas County has risen 1 degree Celsius since 1895, according to an analysis of temperature data in the United States by The Washington Post.

But Paul Spang, who lives in nearby Crescent Mills, said the Dixie Fire was the first time his family had to evacuate. When they were first told to leave late last month, Spang said he scrambled to set up sprinklers outside the house, move flammable curtains and couches away from the windows and load their trailer. He, his wife and their three daughters drove away in their Jeep about 30 minutes later.

Spang’s family returned home after several days, when the evacuation order was lifted. Then their cellphones buzzed with a new alert. They had to leave again.

“Baby, the fire’s coming back,” Spang recalled telling his wife.

The family repacked, throwing clothes into bags and grabbing Spang’s great-grandmother’s china. While his wife and daughters fled for a relative’s home in Reno, Nev., Spang said he cleared brush outside his house and shoveled dirt onto the front porch to ward off the flames. Then he and his father fled as well.

When Spang’s 4-year-old daughter asked why they had to leave, “I made a promise to her that the house wouldn’t burn,” Spang said. “I shouldn’t have done that.”

But Spang was able to keep his promise. His house survived, even as the homes of many of his relatives were destroyed. Faced with others’ devastating losses, Spang said he didn’t know how to feel about his own family’s fate.

“Is it selfish to be happy, or is it thoughtless?” he asked as he sat outside an evacuation shelter in Quincy, waiting for permission to check on his home. “I don’t know.”

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Spang’s friend, Teresa Hatch, had lived in Greenville her whole life until the wildfire made the town uninhabitable. Many of her relatives are buried there, and her grandfather used to work in the mines. After she evacuated the first time and then returned to town, she felt confident that Greenville wouldn’t burn.

Then, on Aug. 4, she said she saw a ball of fire over a nearby mountain. She grabbed a few bags of clothes and towels, checked that her birth certificate and other important papers were in her hip pack, and hitched a ride out of town with a friend as smoke plumes hung over Round Valley.

“When I got in the car,” Hatch said, “I didn’t even look back.”

Hatch, 61, spent several nights sleeping in a tent next to her daughter’s trailer behind a shelter run by the Red Cross in Quincy. Ninety days sober, she said she relied on the humanitarian agency’s mental health services to keep her from relapsing.

A few days into her time at the shelter, Hatch got welcome news: Her landlord would set her up with a new home in nearby Taylorsville, where she could live with a longtime friend. With no savings or insurance on her Greenville property, Hatch said she views her new housing opportunity as a sign of God’s intervention in her life.

Still, Hatch has not been allowed to return to her home, and she mourns for the community she lost.

“A lot of people want to rebuild,” she said. “It’s going to take a long time. And it’s never going to look the same.”

Fire officials say it was impossible to save Greenville. The billowing blaze shot embers into town, forcing firefighters to chase spot fires as residents continued to evacuate, said Tim Jones, a spokesman for California Interagency Incident Management Team 4. Firefighters tried to cool the fire and reduce the available fuel as the winds shifted, he said.

“Firefighters in that situation, you go back to your training,” Jones said. “You basically deal with the fire you can deal with and protect public safety and your own life at that point. And that’s what they did.”

But April Hilpert, who had lived in Greenville for 22 years, still lost her home after she and her husband evacuated with their five children. They packed some clothes and tools and the kids took a few stuffed animals. Convinced the family would soon return, Hilpert said she stopped her children from taking more of their belongings.

But when she saw a photo of their home after the fire passed through, she knew they couldn’t go back. The house was gone.

The family is staying with a relative nearby, waiting to go to Greenville to see if anything survived. Hilpert said their loss doesn’t feel real without being able to see their home in person, but they also feel pulled to move on with their lives. They plan to move to Texas to escape what seems to them like ever-worsening wildfire seasons.

“We can’t stick around and wait forever,” Hilpert said. “We have to start kind of trying to rebuild our lives again.”

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When the Dixie Fire swept through Greenville, Guy Anderson was already accustomed to being on the road. He had moved to the town four years earlier and was using his brother’s house as a home base while traveling in his van. Now without a comfortable place to take a break from sleeping in his car, Anderson said he hopes his church will help him find a new landing place.

“At this point right now,” he said Tuesday, “I can say that I’m homeless.”

For Greenville residents, the Dixie Fire has stolen that concept of home — having somewhere to return at the end of the day, where people know you and you know them. It’s a frightening reminder of the havoc wildfires exacerbated by climate change can wreak.

To Fairbanks, home meant the dirt roads where she and her dad used to go for drives. It was the hardware store where she knew the owner. And it was her grandmother’s restaurant, where she trained to be a server more than a decade ago.

Then there was Fairbanks’s house itself, where she lived with her boyfriend, Josh Olson. Recently, Fairbanks had started to feel like she had everything she needed for a home and could start investing her money elsewhere.

So when it was time to evacuate last week, the couple was careful to take the items they couldn’t replace. Fairbanks packed the ashes of her two deceased dogs, several tin cans and glass bottles she had collected from Greenville’s long-defunct mines and a used copy of a Ralph Waldo Emerson book. Olson brought his great-grandmother’s sewing table and a copy of his son’s birth certificate with his footprints stamped on it.

There was also a lot that they couldn’t bring. Fairbanks left behind most of her craft supplies and the old furniture she had repurposed into shelves and picture frames. She lost her Chevy pickup truck and the 1987 Nissan Pathfinder in her driveway. Olson’s car also burned.

They learned that their home was gone when Fairbanks’s mother returned to Greenville the morning after the fire. Not only has Fairbanks not attempted to go back herself, but she said she has also refused to look at photos or videos of the destruction.

“I think that the only thing that’s holding me together,” she said, “is just the vision of Greenville as it was.”

As Fairbanks and Olson rested by a creek near Quincy on Tuesday, they were unsure what was next for them. They said they hoped to buy a trailer and park it on a family member’s property. Longer term, they wanted to buy land in Indian Valley.

But for the moment, everything was up in the air. They said it could be six weeks or six months before officials allow them to return to Greenville, and they would remain in limbo in the meantime.

Then Fairbanks and Olson got in their car to head toward Crescent Mills. They needed to check on Olson’s mother’s house, to see if it was still standing.