‘My heart is crushed’: US’s largest wildfire levels beloved California town
Greenville, a community of about 1,000 in the Sierra Nevada mountains, reduced to ashes by California’s third largest fire ever recorded
The US’s largest wildfire raged through a beloved Gold Rush-era California mountain town this week, reducing much of the downtown and surrounding homes to ashes.
Greenville, a remote community of about 1,000 in the Sierra Nevada mountains, was a place of strong character, where neighbors volunteered to move furniture, and writers, musicians, mechanics and chicken farmers mingled, resident Eva Gorman said.
By Thursday, its gas station, church, hotel and museum were among the many buildings, some more than a century old, that were gone.
Officials had not yet assessed the number of destroyed buildings, but Todd Johns, the Plumas county sheriff, estimated that “well over” 100 homes had burned in and near the town.
“My heart is crushed by what has occurred there,” said Johns, a lifelong Greenville resident.
“We lost Greenville tonight,” Congressman Doug LaMalfa, who represents the area, said in an emotional Facebook video. “There’s just no words.”
Greenville was leveled by the Dixie fire, California’s third largest wildfire to ever be recorded and the largest blaze currently raging across the US. The three-week-old fire has already consumed about 432,813 acres (676 sq miles), according to an estimate released Friday morning, and is just one of several devastating fires the region has dealt with in recent years.
Early in the week, firefighters had made progress fighting the fire, but on Wednesday, it exploded through timber, grass and brush so dry that one fire official described it as “basically near combustion”.
The Plumas county sheriff’s office warned the town’s residents on Facebook: “You are in imminent danger and you MUST leave now!”
The fire hit Greenville from two angles. Firefighters were already in the town trying to save it, officials said, but first to save people who had refused to evacuate by loading them into cars to get them out.
“We have firefighters that are getting guns pulled out on them, because people don’t want to evacuate,” said Jake Cagle, an incident management operations section chief.
A similar warning was issued as flames pushed toward the south-east in the direction of Taylorsville, a tiny mountain community of roughly 200 people about 10 miles (16km) south-east of Greenville.
Flames also reached the town of Chester, located near Lake Almanor, a popular recreation site north-west of Greenville, but crews managed to protect homes and businesses there, with only minor damage to one or two structures, officials said.
The weather and towering smoke clouds produced by the fire’s intense, erratic winds kept firefighters struggling on Thursday. “It’s wreaking havoc. The winds are kind of changing direction on us every few hours,” Capt Sergio Arellano, a fire spokesman, said.
“We’re seeing truly frightening fire behavior,” Chris Carlton, supervisor for Plumas national forest, added. “We really are in uncharted territory.”
By Friday, the winds were expected to calm and change direction heading into the weekend. But for many in the Greenville community, that relief came too late.
Marilyn Crouch, 68, learned Wednesday night that flames had overtaken the house she shared with her husband, which sat among pines, Douglas firs and oak trees. Crouch was born in Chester and had lived in Greenville for most of her life. Her parents graduated from the local high school, as did Crouch and her husband, high school sweethearts, and later their daughter.
“For me, the part that hurts more than losing my things, is losing my beautiful green mountains, the character, the old buildings, the post office, the old hardware store. It’s just flattened.”
Megan Brown, a sixth-generation cattle rancher in Butte county, cried and then vomited when she saw the images of Greenville, where she spent childhood summers riding horses and buying sweets from a local candy shop. She had just visited her father in the area last week.
“It’s a quiet, close-knit town – everyone knows everybody,” she said. “It’s a lot of hardworking, salt-of-the-earth loggers and cattle ranchers.”
Margaret Elysia Garcia, an artist and writer who has been in southern California waiting out the fire, watched video of her Greenville office in flames. It’s where she kept every journal she’s written in since second grade and a hand edit of a novel on top of her grandfather’s roll-top desk.
“We’re in shock. It’s not that we didn’t think this could happen to us. At the same time, it took our whole town.”
Lassen Volcanic national park was closed to all visitors because of the fire, which has also forced evacuations in Lassen, Butte and Plumas counties. Much of the region was covered in smoke Friday and air quality in the mountains reached hazardous levels. In Susanville, about 40 miles from Greenville, smoke was so severe it was beyond the air quality index.
Visible satellite imagery this morning shows much of interior Northern California covered in smoke due to area wildfires. To view the air quality information for your location, visit https://t.co/XYTBpMWUqP. #CAwx pic.twitter.com/8l3ObHSyt1— NWS Sacramento (@NWSSacramento) August 6, 2021
The Dixie fire was one of 100 active, large fires burning in 14 states, most in the west where historic drought has left lands parched and ripe for ignition.
About a two-hour drive south of Greenville, officials said some 100 homes and other buildings burned in the fast-moving River fire that broke out Wednesday near Colfax, a town of about 2,000. There was no containment and about 6,000 people were ordered to evacuate in Placer and Nevada counties, state fire officials said.
Heatwaves and historic drought tied to the climate crisis have made wildfires harder to fight in the American west.
Scientists say climate change has made the region much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.