The Beckwourth Complex Fires collectively burned 105,670 acres in the Plumas National Forest in Plumas and Lassen counties, California. (Richard Bednarski)

Are Our Sierra Nevada Towns Destined to Go Down in Flames?


 

Read the "story behind the story" of how Richard did his reporting here.

 

I grew up in Quincy, California, a small, vibrant mountain community in the far north reaches of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.


The area is home to about 5,000 people; we caught up with each other in the bank teller line or while checking out in one of the two grocery stores or came together several times a year for events like the County Fair, the Christmas Tree Lighting, and an annual community picnic.

Quincy was the ideal place to come of age. Growing up there was carefree. I could ride my bike anywhere (the town only has two traffic lights that are less than twenty years old anyway) and outdoor adventures were plenty. The forest was my oyster and I have memories beyond the counting of being among the trees. From exploring the forest with my dog while my dad fell trees for firewood to driving the dirt roads at unsafe speeds when I first got my driver’s license. I cut my teeth in the Plumas National Forest.


I had never given much thought to wildfires as a kid. I knew they were a natural part of the forest ecosystem. Whenever they erupted, I would admire the towering cloud of smoke.

Wildfires were a part of life. There were only a couple of summers growing up when forest fires impacted me directly. I had never given much thought to wildfires as a kid. I knew they were a natural part of the forest ecosystem. Whenever they erupted, I would admire the towering cloud of smoke. My dad, who was a forester for the U.S. Forest Service, would often head out and help quench the flames when I was a young kid. I even considered joining a hot shot crew out of high school but never did.


Over the past several years though, things have been changing. The Taco Bell and Dollar Tree shut down, replaced by a small brewery, a bakery, and a second auto supply store. The COVID-19 pandemic certainly has shifted things, but the community is still there: my graduating class had less than 80 kids and most of them remained.


But climate change has other plans.


 


Nearly twenty years after I left town, wildfires are posing a whole new threat to my homeland. Climate change has thrown some curveballs into wildfire activity. Fires not only burn for a longer stretch of time, as seen with last year’s Dixie fire, but they are becoming larger and larger.


“This drought was much hotter and that is part of the reason why we are seeing these impacts to fire,” said Dr. Daniel McEvoy, an Assistant Research Professor in Climatology at the Western Regional Climate Center, part of the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada. Speaking with him in length last fall, he explained to me that his research shows that the region’s humidity has been declining over time while temperatures have steadily increased. Essentially, the ongoing drought is getting worse.


As climate change is driving droughts to become more austere, two indices scientists are focused on is the Evaporative Demand Drought Index (EDDI), which looks at how “thirsty” the atmosphere is – which leads to the drying of soils and vegetation – due to recent patterns of temperature, wind speed, humidity, and cloud cover, and the Standardized Precipitation Evapotranspiration Index (SPEI), a more recent index which uses monthly precipitation and temperature data to capture the impact of global warming on drought severity. Since some research shows that SPEI is better suited for determining continuous droughts and EDDI for identifying flash droughts, pairing both indices up helps illustrate just how dry the forest around my hometown has become.



Evaporative demand is turning the forest into a tinder box at the same time climate change is making the region much hotter. This is as if vegetation is being placed on a stovetop, while moisture is being sucked out by a straw. This means the forests are dry weeks earlier than they were 20 years ago. With the ongoing drought, these two indices are revealing that the forests are more apt to burn.


 

Months into the pandemic, many small fires ignited around Quincy, Calif. The Claremont Fire made a run on East Quincy in August 2020. My parents and sister were forced to evacuate.


While fires were common, they were never larger than 100,000 acres, let alone hundreds of thousands of acres. I remember the Storrie Fire of 2000. The smoke funneled up the Feather River Canyon and right into Quincy just ahead of soccer season. This led to the cancellation of the annual pre-season tournament. I remember thinking that it must have been a bad fire. While it was miles away from town, the impact was felt by the entire community through a few smoky days where you could not see farther than a few dozen feet. The fire would go on to burn about 52,000 acres, one of the larger fires of my childhood.


But in 2020, under a warmer climate and in the midst of a severe ongoing drought, fires act a little differently. The flames would end up cresting over the ridge that lies less than a mile south of my parent’s house. The Claremont and Bear fires evaded the control of wildland firefighters and joined together. In total, the North Complex fires burned over 300,000 acres around the southern flanks of Quincy. It was part of a year when California saw over 4.3 million acres burned.


As my family hastily left town, I wondered if Quincy was going to become the next Paradise. I then wondered if climate change would take small rural communities into the flames each fire season.


Firefighters haul a hose into a forest burned by the Dixie Fire on August 9, 2021. (Richard Bednarski)

Then came the Dixie Fire.“The Dixie Fire burned like nothing most of us have ever experienced before,” said Plumas National Forest Prescribed Fire Program Management Officer Ryan Bauer.


Fire break lines are areas without flammable materials, usually just mineral soil. The idea is that without any fuel to burn, fire growth will be slowed, at best stopped. Instead, This fire had a mind of its own. Driven by high winds, the fire jumped across dozens of fire breaks. For weeks, hand-dug lines, bulldozer lines, and retardent lines as wide as 200 feet were no match for the flames, which evaded firefighting efforts for over 100 days.


It consumed more of my homeland than the previous 100 years of wildfires combined.



The Plumas National Forest is about 1.2 million acres in size. In the past two years, the North Complex and Dixie Fires have burned almost 1.3 million acres, most of which lie within both the national forest and Plumas County.


The remaining swath of the Plumas National Forest that hasn’t burned in the last five years surrounds many major communities on the California State Route 70 corridor, including Cromberg, Greenhorn Ranch, and Portola, explained Bauer.


That gave me pause. I drive by these communities every time I visit Quincy. What will the summer look like? Will the last of my favorite swimming holes be engulfed in flames?


 

Dr. McEvoy has built a career looking into drought and the effects of climate change on environmental moisture levels. Factors such as humidity (both in the atmosphere and in the fuels), snowpack, and how quickly the snowpack melts all contribute to the severity of a wildfire can become.


These factors are having a “big impact on further drying out the soils and vegetation making droughts more severe and leading to more days with high fire danger,” McEvoy explained. A fire weather day, or fire weather watch, are episode defined by high winds, low humidity, and extreme temperatures.


The Dixie Fire burned like nothing most of us have ever experienced before. -- Ryan Bauer, Plumas National Forest Prescribed Fire Program Management Officer

According to a 2021 analysis by Climate Central, over the past 50 years, the amount of fire weather days in California’s Sacramento Drainage climate division has experienced has at least doubled. Last year alone, there were several red flag warnings in effect. These conditions consist of high winds and dry conditions. They are a fire’s delight. The dry air fuels oxygen into the flames and increases the rate of growth of a fire.


“I think an important part of this year was [and] will be the big atmospheric river in October [2021] that fully saturated the soils in the northern Sierra,” explained McEvoy in recent email correspondence. This saturation did not happen in 2020 and the moisture in the soil will help keep the forest from drying out so swiftly.


However, the Sierra Nevada mountain range did fall well below average snowpack and snow-water equivalent. This is essentially the depth of water the snow would cover if it melted and is the standard for measuring the moisture levels of the snowpack.


“Another important piece is that this has been the third drought year in a row for northern Sierra so the forests are still quite dry,” wrote McEvoy. The drought is persistent. As temperatures begin to climb, fire officials are gearing up for what they are predicting to be a busy fire season based on weather forecasting.


The Sierra Nevada is projected to have an above-normal wildland fire potential each month between July and October 2022. The August 2022 forecast pictured is accessed on July 11, 2022. (Courtesy of National Interagency Fire Center)

I find myself returning to my homeland more often to appreciate the beauty of the Plumas National Forest. I want my children to understand the importance of the forests outside Quincy. To appreciate the feeling of waking up among the trees and listening to the forest come alive with birdsong.


I have considered moving back and raising my two daughters among the same Incense Cedar and Ponderosa Pine trees. However, I think of the statistics of another devastating wildfire. The Dixie Fire tore through two small mountain communities, Indian Falls and the historic mining town of Greenville. I witnessed this fire do things I’ve never seen before when reporting on the fire as a photographer.


The former Greenville, Calif. Gas-Mart on the intersection of Cresent and Pine smolders on August 5, 2021, as a casualty of the Dixie Fire. As of 2022, the lot remains vacant. (Richard Bednarski)

 

“Under the right conditions, managed fire is the most effective tool we have at our disposal,” explained Bauer. He knows that if humans want to get ahead and help reduce the devastating impacts of wildfires, we have to embrace good fire or controlled burning as a way to reduce fuel loads across the Sierra Nevada mountain range.


However, controlled burning is getting bad press due to the recent Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires in new Mexico. These two fires originated from controlled burns. It should be noted that the overwhelming majority of over 99% of controlled burns are “successful”, meaning they do not get out of control. The benefits are far reached and reduce the impact of subsequent wildfires.


“The traditional methodology was typical, you would burn very often, annually, immediately around your villages,” explained Craig Tucker. He is the natural resources consultant for the Karuk tribe of northern California and a big advocate for good fire.


Tucker knows the use of prescribed burning and cultural fire as a way to bring people together, across lifestyles and the political aisle. He promotes the Good Fire Report, which highlights the dire necessity of using fire as a tool to combat the increased fuel loads across forests of the west.


The Good Fire Report was predominantly produced by Don Hankins, a professor of Geography and Planning at California State University, Chico, and Faculty Field Director for the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve. He is a Plains Miwok traditional cultural practitioner and advocate of good fire. The report focuses on proper training and communities coming together to conduct controlled burns. A series of accompanying videos highlight the importance of good fire, not just for the Indigenous peoples but the ecosystem as well.


I find myself returning to my homeland more often to appreciate the beauty of the Plumas National Forest. I want my children to understand the importance of the forests outside Quincy. To appreciate the feeling of waking up among the trees and listening to the forest come alive with birdsong.

We all need to come together when it comes to wildfires and begin to understand the nuances of fire and how it is beneficial to the forest. While there is a way to go, there are changes happening. Such as fire organizations working with the media about how wildfire is portrayed. I consider the Life With Fire podcast a great resource for anyone interested in learning more about wildfires. In early June, I attended a media training held by The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) about safely working around wildfires as a journalist. The biggest request from CAL FIRE Public Information Officer Robert Foxworthy was for the media to stop showing images and clips of buildings burning several days after the buildings in fact burned.


Scientists like Dr. McEvoy are working to study the impacts of climate change on western forests and how wildfires are being affected. In a recent press release, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary, acknowledged that climate change “continues to drive the devastating intersection of extreme heat, drought and wildland fire danger across the United States, creating wildfires that move with a speed and intensity previously unseen.”


She explained that funding will be provided by President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to “support the Interior Department’s ongoing efforts to invest in the science and research that is needed to better understand the impacts of climate changes on a wildland fire in order to better safeguard people, communities and the resources.”


Trees stripped of vegetation by the Dixie Fire are still seen on October 21, 2021. (Richard Bednarski)

Both Greenville and Indian Falls are rebuilding after being leveled by the Dixie Fire. After a 2021 CAL FIRE report assigning blame for causing the Dixie Fire when a 65-foot tall Douglas Fir fell onto its power lines, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. struck deals worth upward of $55 million in April with six counties devastated by wildfires, which would place the utility under five years of independent oversight and end the threat of criminal convictions. The forest around Quincy is healing. I still have family and friends living in Quincy and have almost moved back a handful of times to raise my children.


But I hesitate.


The future of Quincy is unknown. The economy is on the rocks and the threat of wildfire places everyone on edge. The forest around my hometown is overgrown. Much of what is left has not burned in a long time.


I know that it is only a matter of time before the remaining forest sees fire. Whether it is as devastating as the Dixie Fire or in the form of a controlled good fire, depends on how we shift our perception of wildfires and whether we act on it.


 

This story is published in partnership with The Sierra Nevada Ally, a nonprofit news organization reporting on the environment, public policy, and cultural issues throughout the Mountain West, especially northern Nevada and eastern California.


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Richard Bednarski

Born and raised in tiny Quincy, Calif, Richard obtained a B.A. in Anthropology and Photography, in addition to an M.A. in Journalism from the University of Nevada at Reno on the other side of the Sierra Nevada, where he is currently based. His words and photos have appeared in national and regional publications such as USA Today Reno Gazette-Journal, The Progressive, and the Sierra Nevada Ally. When not crafting stories that matter, Ricahrd can be found traveling and camping with his wife and two daughters, tending a garden, baking bread, and playing the banjo.